STORY : Ex-death row inmate shares son’s story of forgiveness, Two years out of prison, she’s now promoting ‘Set Free’ book- Gaile Owen


It’s the “normal” things that matter so much to Gaile Owens these days.

Things like walking in the park with her grandchildren, holding two steady jobs, even mundane errands around a city that is still a little foreign to her.

“You hear people say, ‘I have to do a lot of things’,” Owens, 61, said Wednesday. “My favorite thing to say is, ‘I GET to do these things.'”

That wasn’t the case for most of her life. Three years ago, Owens was preparing to be executed by lethal injection for paying a hit man to kill her husband in late 1984 after what she described as a life of humiliation and physical and sexual abuse at his hands. But with the help of her son, Stephen, and numerous advocates in the community, she was able to secure a commutation of her death sentence from then-Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2010 and her freedom from the state parole board a year later.

She has remained largely silent about the past 29 years, but that has changed with the publishing of her son’s book, “Set Free,” which documents his struggle to find meaning and forgiveness in the murder of his father and the condemning of his mother to death. Gaile and Stephen Owens will speak Thursday at a forum hosted by John Seigenthaler, former Tennessean publisher and editor and one of the Owens’ key allies in the fight to free her.

Gaile Owens spoke for the first time with The Tennessean in a phone interview Wednesday, joined by her son so they could talk about his new book. She’s still not ready to talk about the murder or the abuse she says she endured from her husband. But she wants people to know about her family’s journey of faith, forgiveness and hope.

“I think his journey is important. I think it speaks of hope for other people,” she said of her son’s book. “No one will have walked the same journey we have, but everybody has a story and everybody has got places in their life where they needed forgiveness.”

Forgiveness found

Stephen Owens said the past 30 years have been fraught with anger and confusion. He was with his mother one day in 1984 when they found his father beaten to death with a tire iron in their Shelby County home. Gaile Owens and the man she hired, Sidney Porterfield, were both convicted and sentenced to die. Porterfield remains on death row today.

Forgiveness didn’t come easy.

Stephen Owens had no contact with his mother from the time he testified against her at trial in 1986 until Aug. 23, 2009, when he finally decided to visit her in prison. In “Set Free,” he describes an overwhelmingly emotional, three-hour meeting, ending with a tearful hug. It was then that he heard words he had waited nearly 30 years to hear.

“I’m sorry, Stephen,” Gaile Owens told her son in a conversation he describes in “Set Free.” “I know I can’t change anything now, but I just need to ask for your forgiveness.”

That gave him a chance to say the words he felt God had wanted him to say for so long.

“I forgive you, mom,” he responded.

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