Speaking of divisions on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, today a divided panel rejected the habeas appeal of Gaile Owens, the first woman sentenced to death in Tennessee. Among other things, the court divided over whether Owens received ineffective assistance of counsel because she failed to cooperate fully in her own defense and her attorney neglected to press what some call the "he just needed killing" defense.
Chief Judge Danny Boggs wrote the majority opinion in Owens v. Guida, joined by Judge Eugene Siler, Jr. Here is how the majority summarized the case.
Gaile K. Owens ("Owens") is on Tennessee's death row because she hired Sidney Porterfield to kill her husband and Porterfield successfully carried out his assignment. Owens appeals the district court's dismissal of her petition for a writ of habeas corpus. She argues that: 1) she received ineffective assistance of counsel ("IAC") when trial counsel failed to adequately investigate her background and failed to overcome the state's hearsay objection to one of her penalty-phase witnesses; 2) the state violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to turn over letters between her deceased husband and his paramour; and 3) the trial court unconstitutionally prevented her from offering, as mitigating evidence, testimony that she wanted to plead guilty in return for receiving a life sentence.Judge Gilbert Merritt wrote a strongly worded dissent. It begins:
We reject the first argument and hold that the Tennessee courts reasonably applied Strickland v. Washington by concluding that Owens sabotaged her own defense and that counsel's performance is not deficient when counsel follows a client's instructions. Likewise, we reject her second argument and hold that the Tennessee courts reasonably applied Brady because even if the letters were favorable evidence, and were suppressed by the state, Owens was not prejudiced because she could have presented other evidence of the affair but chose not to do so. Finally, we reject her third argument and hold that the Tennessee courts reasonably applied Lockett v. Ohio in refusing to admit Owens's evidence because no court, let alone the Supreme Court, has held that failed plea negotiations may be admitted at a penalty-phase hearing. Therefore, we affirm.
The majority opinion slants and misconceives relevant facts and law in this case on each of the three major issues in order to uphold the death penalty. I will try to straighten out the case for the reader by introducing the actual facts and the correct legal principles to be applied. This is not a close case.The majority responds that "for many of the points of the dissent, a careful examination of the relevant part of this opinion, and the cases and portions of the record cited therein, suffices for refutation." Additional responses to the dissent are contained on pages 19-20.
The facts about Ryan Owens' cruel and sadistic behavior toward his wife now make an overwhelming case of domestic violence and psychological abuse in mitigation of the murder case against Gaile Owens. From the beginning, Mrs. Owens' counsel knew that this was her best — indeed, her only — defense. Before trial, her counsel told the trial court that in his opinion: "This case has a meritorious defense in the battered-wife syndrome." The Memphis district attorneys obviously knew that this was the defense theory. But this defense was never developed or even mentioned to the jury during the trial because of the cover-up of exculpatory evidence by the Memphis prosecutor and the complete failure of defense counsel to conduct a proper investigation of Ryan Owens' sadistic behavior toward his wife. I will discuss the Memphis prosecutor's cover-up of exculpatory evidence first, then defense counsel's failure to investigate and develop the defense, and finally the refusal of the Memphis trial court to allow in evidence one of the defendant's best lines of mitigation testimony.