Mark Owens-Kim Owens double portrait

Mark Owens, left; and Kim Penney Owens

Rather than make prosecutors prove at a trial that he killed his ex-wife with an ax more than a year ago, a Chalmette man pleaded guilty Monday to second-degree murder. 

Mark Owens, 57, received a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment after withdrawing what had initially been dual pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity in the slaying of Kim Penney, 48.

The plea wrapped up what was perhaps the highest-profile open murder case in the St. Bernard Parish court system. 

Penney's mother and sister delivered emotional statements to Owens during his sentencing in front of 34th Judicial District Court Judge Robert Buckley. 

The mother, Peggy Browning, called him a coward and predicted he would burn in hell. The sister, Dawn Penney, said it was fitting he would spend the rest of his life "locked up like an animal." 

According to authorities, Owens waited under Penney's home in the 3100 block of Palmetto Street and ambushed her with an ax as she left for work the morning of Sept. 27, 2017. 

He then went after his former mother-in-law, who had witnessed her daughter's killing, authorities said. However, Penney's mother wasn't harmed and managed to call 911 as Owens fled the scene. 

Owens surrendered to the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office the same day after a brief visit with his brother. 

Penney's loved ones said they had long feared Owens would kill her, in part because he had been placed in a pre-trial diversion program instead of jail after he allegedly forced her into a home in 2015 and threatened to harm himself with a weapon he had with him.

Court records show that Owens, a former St. Bernard Roads Department laborer and ex-parish jail guard, has a history of mental illness and had been "confined to mental hospitals" multiple times.

In fact, he had been discharged from a mental hospital in Alexandria just two days before the murder of Penney, who had previously worked for parish government. 

Owens said he checked into the hospital because he was distressed over his suspicion that Penney and her former boss, ex-Parish President David Peralta, had slept together, and he was consumed by thoughts of killing them.

Penney — who also worked at an investment firm run by businessman Sidney Torres IV — and Peralta, who died in June, denied ever having an affair. 

Prosecutors charged Owens with first-degree murder and attempted murder. The first-degree murder charge would have allowed prosecutors to pursue the death penalty, but they didn't exercise that option. 

Owens' dual not guilty pleas set the stage for him to argue that he was legally insane and couldn't distinguish right from wrong at the time Penney was killed.

But medical evaluations later revealed Owens was mentally fit enough for a trial and could distinguish right from wrong at the time of the killing, Assistant District Attorney Michael Morales said Monday. 

Owens' attorney, Public Defender Cullen Tonry, said sparing Penney's family the ordeal of a public trial scheduled for May 20 factored into the decision to plead guilty to the reduced charge of second-degree murder.

"It's sad. Nothing positive could come from this," said Tonry, whose client had the attempted murder charge against him dismissed as part of his plea deal.

Shackled and wearing an orange prisoner's jumpsuit, Owens listened stoically as Browning and Dawn Penney addressed him. The women wore matching gray T-shirts reading "Stop Domestic Violence" and "In memory of Kim Penney."

Browning said Owens was "evil, "self-centered" and bound for an eternity in hell, adding, "I hope wherever they send you, you are going to have to watch your back." 

Dawn Penney said the slaying most devastated her sister's daughter and son. She recalled how the son collapsed into her arms, sobbing, after Dawn drove to Covington to personally inform him that his mother had been murdered and that his father was jailed for the crime.

"Kim was an awesome person, so strong, loving, giving and faithful," Dawn Penney said. "You don't deserve to breathe the same air as the rest of us, and in fact you will not because you will spend the rest of your life locked up like an animal, under the control of someone else." 

Before ordering deputies to take Owens from the courtroom, Buckley apologized to Penney's family for their pain.

"Nothing ... the justice system can do can bring back the loved one you lost," he said. 


Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.