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.
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