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Hit man for Gaile Owens dies in Tennessee prison

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A man convicted of bludgeoning a woman's husband to death with a tire iron in return for payment has died on death row.

Sidney Porterfield died of natural causes Wednesday afternoon, said Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Dorinda Carter. At 71, he was the oldest inmate on death row.

Porterfield was a Memphis mechanic in 1985 when prosecutors said he was approached by Gaile Owens and offered $17,000 to kill Ron Owens. Porterfield and Gaile Owens, who had not known each other previously, were tried together and both sentenced to death.

The killing gained notoriety, in part, because Gaile and Ron Owens had been seen as a devout and devoted couple before the murder.

Porterfield's case was overshadowed by that of Owens, whose supporters later said she had been an abused wife who refused to discuss the abuse at trial in order to protect her 12- and 8-year-old sons. She came within two months of being executed before her sentence was commuted in 2010 by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. Owens was released in 2011. She declined to comment for this story.

Since 2000, 10 death row inmates have died of natural causes, and one has committed suicide. Six have been executed.

At the time of his death, Porterfield had an appeal pending at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and his execution date had not been set.

His longtime appeals attorney, David Stebbins, said one of the primary claims in the appeal was that there was racial discrimination in the jury selection. Stebbins said the first seven peremptory challenges were against African-American jurors. Porterfield was African-American while Owens is white.

Stebbins visited Porterfield last week at the Lois DeBerry Special Needs Facility, which is for seriously ill inmates. He said Porterfield had some serious health problems but seemed to be improving, so Stebbins was very surprised to learn that Porterfield had died.

Stebbins said Porterfield was always polite and cooperative with him and was well liked by other inmates.

Stebbins said Porterfield always maintained that he was innocent, and he held out hope until the last that he would eventually be released from prison.

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