Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
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."
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