NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CBS/AP) Gaile Owens was a mere 77 days from being the first woman to be put to death in Tennessee in almost 200 years when Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted her sentence, Wednesday, for paying a man to murder her husband, Ron Owens, in 1986.
The decision by the Governor means Gaile Owens could potentially be released as early as 2012.
Gaile Owens was found guilty of hiring Sidney Porterfield to kill her husband in 1986, and sentenced to death. Gov. Bredesen said he decided to commute her sentence to life in prison because Owens had a plea deal with prosecutors, but after her Porterfield opted not to take the deal, she was put on trial.
According to attorneys Kelley Henry and Gretchen Swift, Owens was in "disbelief" when she learned of the governor's decision.
"Gaile...is absolutely overwhelmed," said Henry. "She couldn't speak at first. She said 'Thank you all so much, I love you.'"
Ron Owens was beaten to death with a tire iron, at the couple's suburban Memphis home they shared with their two sons, on February 17, 1985. Witnesses testified that over the span of a few months Owens implored several men to murder her husband before successfully hiring Porterfield.
Owens originally told police that she had a tumultuous marriage, but little physical violence, but later changed her story telling her attorneys that her husband continually raped and denigrated her. According to defense claims, Ron Owens cheated on her and threatened to take their two sons when she asked for a divorce.
After the decision was announced Gaile Owens' son, Stephen, thanked the Governor and the more than 11,000 people who signed the petition in support of his mother and credited God with allowing his to forgive his mother and still honor his father's memory, Nashville Public Radio reported.
"I'm looking forward right now to moving forward in our relationship," Stephen Owens told reporters. "If she does get parole...she will be welcomed [by] my family."
Stephen Owens, then 12, and his 8-year-old brother were the ones who discovered their father's brutalized body in 1985.
This marks the second time Bredesen has commuted a death sentence. He commuted the sentence of Michael Joy Boyd to life without the possibility of parole in 2007, citing "grossly inadequate legal representation."
Gaile Owens and Porterfield were tried together and both given the death penalty. Porterfield continues to appeal his sentence.