NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nearly three decades after the murder that tore them apart, the mother and son talk easily now. They laugh over little things. She stands on tiptoes to hug him and whispers: “I love you.” He smiles and hugs her back.
They often meet for lunch at the nonprofit where Gaile Owens works. On this day, she and Stephen sit side by side in a conference room, one glancing at the other as they answer a reporter’s questions about their tangled past. About the killing of Stephen’s father and Gaile’s years on death row for her role in the crime. About Stephen’s burden of resentment and anger and, finally, his decision to move past it all.
They don’t want to dwell on the past. She says it can’t be changed. He adds that you can’t absolve someone and then keep rehashing the things they have done to hurt you. For Stephen, now 40 years old, it took much of his adult life to get to this point.
The decision to forgive, Stephen says, “opened a life for me that I would have never had.”
As a boy, Stephen adored his father. As a man, he mourned his absence: at his basketball games, his wedding, the birth of his children.
For years Stephen wanted nothing to do with the woman who had caused all of this pain and grief. But slowly, he started down a different path. And when he finally found a way to forgive his mother, Stephen also decided to fight for her freedom.
In early 1985, Gaile Owens set in motion her husband’s murder.
The middle-class mother would later admit that she spent months driving around crime-ridden sections of Memphis, looking for someone willing to harm Ron Owens. By Feb. 17 of that year, she had found her man — a mechanic with a rap sheet.
That night, she returned home after church with Stephen, 12, and his brother Brian, 8, in tow. Stephen saw his father first. He lay bleeding into the living room carpet, having been beaten with a tire iron. Days later, Gaile was arrested as an accessory to murder. A pastor and an aunt broke the news to the boys.
Stephen’s father had been his hero. A hospital administrator, Ron Owens coached the church basketball team before his death. Gaile sang in the choir. Stephen had never even seen the two fight, and presumed — as children do — that they were happy.
In reality, Gaile had begun taking diet pills and anti-depressants after she gained weight while pregnant with Stephen. She pilfered money from the doctors’ offices where she worked as a receptionist, and one employer pressed charges.
After her arrest in Ron’s death, Gaile claimed that her husband had been abusive and unfaithful. She had wanted a divorce, but her husband had threatened to take the children, she said. She felt trapped.
Stephen knew none of this at the time. Prosecutors told jurors at Gaile’s trial that she had gotten the household into financial trouble and wanted Ron killed for insurance money. Stephen even testified for the prosecution, saying he had seen his mother hide bank statements under a mattress. He barely looked at her from the witness stand.
“I hated my mother,” he writes in a new book, “Set Free,” chronicling their journey together.
When she was sentenced to die, it mattered little to him. Stephen already considered her dead.
For 17 years, his feelings never wavered. Then his own son was born, and Stephen began to reconsider his relationship with the only parent he had left.
It started with Stephen wanting to let Gaile know that she was a grandmother. He sent her a Christmas card in 2001 with a picture and a brief note: “Mom, I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas. I also wanted to introduce you to Mr. Zachary Stephen Owens.”
He signed off, “Love ya.”
Stephen didn’t know where he wanted the relationship to go, but Zachary’s arrival and then that of a second son, Joshua, left him mulling what he would tell his kids about their grandparents.
He and Gaile corresponded sporadically for several more years. He was often too busy to write, or felt that he had nothing to say. But something kept gnawing at him. God, he believes, teaches us to forgive those who hurt us, and “you can’t just pick what you want to forgive.”
Then Stephen was offered a job teaching in a prison, and he found many of the prisoners to be not much different from him.
Later, he began teaching at a Christian school and discovered that a colleague was leading a prison Bible study attended by his mother. The man told Stephen his mother was a spiritual leader who acted as a great influence on her fellow inmates.
“Those things don’t just happen,” Stephen said, and they served as affirmation “that I was doing what I was supposed to do.”
Still, it wasn’t easy to reconcile with the woman who had taken everything from him as a boy. He had to work past the idea that forgiving her meant betraying the memory of the father. His unwavering faith helped, and slowly Stephen came to believe that “doing what God had led me to do to forgive mom did not mean that I didn’t still have feelings for dad …”
Eight years after sending that first Christmas card, Stephen decided it was time for a face-to-face meeting. Aug. 23, 2009, was a Sunday, so Stephen and his wife went to church, as usual. Then they drove together to the Tennessee Prison for Women.
When he saw his mother for the first time in 23 years, he opened his arms to embrace her.
Gaile sobbed and told Stephen she was sorry, then they talked for nearly three hours. When the guard gave them a five-minute warning, Gaile provided the opening Stephen had been praying for. She told Stephen again that she was sorry, and asked for his forgiveness.
“I forgive you, Mom,” he said.
Stephen felt elated. The anger that had weighed him down all those years was gone. Once he was able to process his feelings, Stephen told his wife that he now knew he had to help his mother.
He just didn’t yet know how.
Two months later, the letter arrived. Gaile’s appeals had been exhausted, meaning an execution date would soon be set. It even noted that Stephen might be asked if he wanted to witness the death.
Stephen struggled with what to do next. He was reluctant to get publicly involved in the case. At the trial, he had been mobbed by the media, and had chosen ever since to live a very private life.
Stephen also was concerned about the reaction from other members of his family. And even Gaile herself did not support his involvement, believing it a hopeless endeavor that would cause her son even more pain when it failed.
On April 19, 2010, the Tennessee Supreme Court set a date — just five months away — for Gaile’s execution. The only hope left was a long-shot request to the governor for clemency.
The very next day, Stephen faced the media for the first time in 24 years, and read from a prepared statement.
“Please,” he said, “do not leave me with the responsibility of looking into my son’s eyes and explaining that their grandmother was executed. Please do not allow a death penalty to be the legacy of my family. I am asking for your mercy.”
Three months later, Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted Gaile’s sentence, saying her punishment was out of line with that of others who committed similar crimes. He gave her life in prison but with the possibility of parole.
With time off for good behavior, Gaile Owens walked free on Oct. 7, 2011.
Today, at 61, Gaile is nearly unrecognizable. She wears makeup and boot cut jeans, with her gray hair cut short and spiky. It’s a far cry from the woman who left prison in baggy clothes, pushing a laundry cart containing a few belongings.
On that day, Gaile issued a brief statement saying she couldn’t wait to see her grandchildren and just walk in the park with her family. “I’m looking forward to being a mother and a grandmother.”
Now her dream is a reality.
“I get to go to the games, and I get to tousle Joshua’s red hair, and they sit on my lap and they hug me and … it couldn’t be any better,” she said in an interview last week with Stephen by her side.
Stephen said Gaile tries to come to all of Joshua’s basketball and flag football games, where they all hang out as a family. She attends Grandparents Day at school. And when the family took her to dinner for her birthday, the children couldn’t wait to have their pictures taken with “G.G.”
It took Gaile only two weeks after leaving prison to find a job that she loves and where she is able to mentor women who are victims of prostitution and drug abuse. They tell her she’s helped make a difference in their lives.
“But I don’t keep a score of all that. It’s not about what has Gaile’s done, it’s about ‘How can I help?’ because those to whom grace is given, there’s much that is required, too,” she said, paraphrasing a passage from Luke.
But there are also regrets. Gaile has not reconciled with other family members, including her son Brian and her sister, Carolyn. And she says she never forgets that she was, ultimately, responsible for her husband’s death.
“I live with that regret every single day,” she said.
Stephen says he wrote the book to help others. He believes most people have someone they need to forgive.
“Forgiveness is a hard thing to maneuver,” he said. “It’s one of those situations where you look back on it and if you’d known you were going to feel like this, you’d have done it earlier.
“But,” he said, “it was in God’s timing.”