By ERIK SCHELZIG
Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Gov. Phil Bredesen on Wednesday commuted the death sentence of a woman convicted of paying a man to kill her husband, meaning she could be released as soon as 2012.
Gaile Owens, 57, has been on death row since 1986. Bredesen said he decided to commute her sentence to life in prison because she had a plea deal with prosecutors but then was put on trial when her co-defendant refused to accept the bargain.
Attorneys Kelley Henry and Gretchen Swift said Owens' reaction was "disbelief" when they informed her of the governor's decision.
"Gaile, as you all might imagine, is absolutely overwhelmed," said Henry. "She couldn't speak at first. She said. 'Thank you all so much, I love you."'
The state had set a September execution date. Under the terms of the arrangement Bredesen announced Wednesday, she'll be eligible for parole in 2012.
It has been nearly 200 years since Tennessee executed a woman. One other woman, Christa Gail Pike, is in prison with a death sentence but she is continuing to appeal.
Owens' son Stephen told reporters that he was able to reconcile with her after realizing he could "forgive my mother and still honor and love my dad at the same time."
"I just wanted to be able to say that our family's legacy didn't end with the execution of my mother, and me having to sit down with my kids one day and explain that," he said.
Owens was convicted in Shelby County in 1986 of hiring Sidney Porterfield to kill her husband, Ron Owens. The victim was beaten to death with a tire iron at the suburban Memphis home the couple shared with their two sons. Witnesses testified that Owens had solicited several men over a period of a few months to kill her husband.
She initially told police that she had a bad marriage but that there was little physical violence. Shortly thereafter, she told attorneys a different story: claiming her husband had repeatedly raped and denigrated her. He cheated on her and threatened to take the children when she asked for a divorce, according to defense claims.
"Ms. Owens is guilty of first-degree murder; she accepted responsibility for that," Bredesen said. "Life in prison is appropriate."
Owens agreed to a conditional guilty plea before her trial, but that agreement was rescinded after her co-defendant refused to also plead guilty, Bredesen said. Porterfield was convicted and sentenced to death.
"This case also raises unresolved allegations of domestic violence and emotional abuse that, while inconclusive, raise the possibility that the defendant suffered from the form of post-traumatic stress disorder then known as battered woman syndrome," the commutation statement says.
Defense attorneys claimed Owens' death sentence was out of line with others convicted of similar crimes. Attorneys found records of at least 20 women convicted in Tennessee of first-degree murder for either killing their husbands, or hiring or conspiring with someone else to have their husbands killed. None of those women were sentenced to death. Many other women were convicted of lesser charges.
It is the second time Bredesen has commuted a death sentence. In 2007, Bredesen commuted the sentence of Michael Joe Boyd to life without the possibility of parole, citing "grossly inadequate legal representation."
Current Shelby County prosecutor Bill Gibbons said in a statement that he defers to the governor's power under the state constitution to commute sentences.
"I respect the fact that it is his decision based upon his review of the circumstances," he said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)