Former death row inmate and son highlight forgiveness

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“True forgiveness is when you offer forgiveness and not worry about knowing the answer to every question.”

So said Stephen Owens, son of Gaile Owens, a Nashville woman convicted of paying someone to kill her husband (Stephen’s father) in 1984. The journey from that criminal act to the reconciliation of the mother and son, was the subject of a lecture in Lipscomb’s Stowe Hall on Thursday evening.

Lipscomb’s SALT Program, Institute for Law, Justice and Society, and LIFE Program brought the mother and son to campus to introduce students to two people who have “successfully navigated the challenges of forgiveness,” said Richard Goode, professor of history and coordinator of the LIFE program, which educates inmates in the Tennessee Prison for Women, where Gaile Owens was incarcerated.

Gaile was an abused wife who fought back by hiring someone to kill her husband. Stephen, then age 11, found his father’s body and testified against his mother at the trial. She was on death row until community outcry convinced the governor to commute her sentence to life with parole in 2010, and she later received parole from the state.

“I can tell you I feel like one of the most blessed people to walk on two legs,” Gaile told the crowd.

While Gaile waited for execution in prison, Stephen was raised by his aunt and was firm in his resolution to never communicate with his mother again. But God began working on his heart, he said, and after years of no contact, he finally did visit his mother in 2009.

Stephen has now written a book about their journey to reconciliation, “Set Free: Discover Forgiveness Amidst Murder and Betrayal.

“God shows up in a lot of interesting ways,” said Stephen, describing the various incidences through the years that helped him finally accept his mother back into his life.

Two months after the birth of his first son in October 2001, Stephen sent his mother a Christmas card, “because no matter what our past was, she deserved to know she was a grandmother,” he said.

Over the course of 10 years, a number of incidences moved him closer to forgiving his mother. He moved his family back to Nashville, and he later took on a one-year teaching job in Nashville’s detention center, which brought him relationships to open his eyes about people’s faults and crimes.

“People inside walls are no different that you and I. The difference is that the consequences for their mistakes are worse than the consequences for my mistakes,” he said.

Later, he began teaching at his current workplace, Christ Presbyterian Academy, and there met a co-worker who had taught his mother in Bible studies at the Tennessee Prison for Women. The friend continually encouraged Stephen to go visit his mother.

In prison, waiting for years of appeals to play out, Gaile Owens was praying every day that God would allow her to see her sons before her death. She decided that her “legacy had to be more than the death penalty,” so she threw herself into work in the admitting department, where she worked with newcomers to the Tennessee Prison for Women.

“I was scared to death the day Stephen came to visit,” she said of their first meeting in 2009. “There was nothing like that first hug. I told him I loved him; he told me he loved me, and we talked for three hours about good things… I asked him to forgive me, and he said, ‘Mom I do. That’s why I’m here.’”

After that first meeting, Stephen decided to join the community effort working to get Gaile pardoned. A petition of 13,000 signatures and other efforts convinced Gov. Phil Bredesen to commute her sentence to life with the possibility of parole.

“I don’t know how big you think your God is, but I know how big my God is,” Gaile said. “You don’t just get saved 72 days out from your execution. You don’t just get parole at your first state hearing.

“My God is so big. Now I get to walk with my son. I get to see my grandkids. I get to see the kind of man and father that (Stephen) is.”

Gaile now works at the local nonprofit Magdalene House, and Stephen teaches science at Christ Presbyterian Academy.