By Marty King
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Stephen Owens was 12 years old when he discovered his father’s body in their Memphis, Tenn. home after his mother, Gaile Owens, hired a stranger to murder him. Owens’ new book, Set Free, shares how he overcame the traumatic events of his childhood by forgiving his mother.
Set Free, published by B&H Publishing Group, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources, recounts the events surrounding the arrest, conviction, death sentence and ultimate release of Gaile Owens who spent 26 years on death row.
“Although this story takes place surrounding the events of a crime story, it is essentially about the power of forgiveness and how crucial it is to find peace with your life,” Owens said.
In the book released Oct. 1, Owens recounts that he did not see his mother for 23 years after testifying against her. “For most of that time, because of my own anger and bitterness toward her, I did not even know my mother’s whereabouts. Nor did I care.”
In the foreward to the book, renowned journalist John Seigenthaler writes that Owens had decided he would “never lift a finger or raise his voice to help her. He thought his mother deserved to die. He had never forgiven her.”
Owens describes in the book how God led him for several years through a process of reconciliation and eventually to forgiveness.
“Tired of feeling the heavy burden of unforgiveness, weary of carrying the weight on my shoulders, I was miserable because I knew I hadn’t dealt well with the matters of forgiveness,” Owens writes.
He says visiting his mother in prison was integral to forgiving her. “I had been convinced God was leading me to prison to extend forgiveness to my mother, to tell her that I forgave her.”
“For more than ten years, God had been setting me up, conditioning me, and getting me ready to see my mother,” he writes. “The last time I had seen my mother’s face was in 1986 at the Memphis courtroom where she had been sentenced to death.”
On Aug. 23, 2009, Owens and his wife, Lisa, visited the Tennessee Prison for Women, northwest of downtown Nashville. “The moment Lisa and I entered the room was an overwhelming experience. Sitting demurely, though nervously, at the table was my now gray-haired mother who I had not seen in nearly 24 years,” Owen’s writes.
“My eyes locked onto hers and without the slightest bit of hesitation, I opened my arms and moved in her direction. She rose, and I hugged my mother for the first time since Dad’s funeral.”
Owens writes the three-hour visit went well, “with conversation coming easily,” but an opportunity for forgiveness didn’t appear until the prison guard gave them five minutes to conclude the visit.
“Mother turned toward me, with tears in her eyes. ‘I’m sorry, Stephen,’ she said. ‘I know I can’t change anything now, but I just need to ask for your forgiveness.’”
“This was the open door I had been praying for. This was what I believed God had sent me to do. I looked my mother in the eyes, and said, ‘I forgive you, Mom.’ Bound up in my expression of forgiveness were the years of hurt and emotional pain my family and I had suffered.”
A year later, Gaile Owens’ death sentence was commuted to life in prison, making her eligible for parole, which was granted Sept. 28, 2011 – exactly one year to the day after she was scheduled to be executed. A week later, Stephen Owens was at the prison gate and hugged his mother as she was released.
God opened a door for both mother and son to be set free – her from a literal prison and he from a prison of unforgiveness.
The Owens are sharing their story of forgiveness and reconciliation on a national book tour this month including a number of national broadcast appearances.