July 19, 2024

Texas’ parole board has denied clemency for death row inmate Ramiro Gonzales, who is scheduled to be executed Wednesday for a 2001 murder, despite the fact a key expert witness no longer stands by his testimony at trial.

Gonzales, 41, had asked the Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend clemency, which would allow GOP Governor Greg Abbott to commute the inmate’s sentence to a lesser punishment, like life in prison without parole, for the 2001 sexual assault and killing of 18-year-old Bridget Townsend.

Gonzales and his attorneys pointed to his traumatic upbringing and his rehabilitation – illustrated by his Christian faith – as reasons to spare his life, the petition shows.

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The board voted unanimously against recommending a commutation of sentence or a 180-day reprieve. His attorneys were “deeply saddened and disappointed” by the decision, they said in a statement.

“If Ramiro is executed on Wednesday, the world will be a darker place without him,” the attorneys said.

Without the board’s recommendation, Abbott is limited by state law to issuing a one-time 30-day reprieve.

Otherwise, Gonzales’ hopes rest with the courts: The inmate has asked for a stay of execution, arguing his trial jury’s determination that he would remain a dangerous threat – a requirement for a capital sentence in Texas – was based on testimony by an expert witness who relied on data later found to be false. And it was ultimately wrong, his attorneys argue, as shown by Gonzales’ redemption behind bars and his earlier attempts to donate a kidney.

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Thus, Gonzales should be ineligible for execution, his attorneys argue, and executing him would violate his constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The planned execution of Gonzales, who was previously slated to be put to death in July 2022 before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay, is one of two scheduled this week in the nation.

On Thursday, Oklahoma intends to execute Richard Rojem, who was convicted of the 1984 kidnapping, rape and murder of his seven-year-old stepdaughter, Layla Cummings, court records show. Last week, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board voted against recommending clemency for Rojem, who claims he is innocent, CNN affiliate KOCO reported.

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If both Gonzales and Rojem are put to death, their executions would be the eighth and ninth to take place in the US this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre, a non-profit that monitors and analyses information about capital punishment and has been critical of its administration.

Both would be the second person to be executed in their respective states in 2024. By this time last year, 13 inmates had been put to death in the US, the centre’s data shows.

In the Texas case, the Medina County Criminal District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. CNN has tried to reach members of Townsend’s family for comment.

The murder of Bridget Townsend

One day in January 2001, Gonzales called the home of his drug supplier, who was Townsend’s boyfriend, according to a court of appeals opinion from 2009 affirming the inmate’s conviction and death sentence.

Townsend answered, the opinion states, and told Gonzales her boyfriend was at work. Gonzales then went to the home in search of drugs, and he stole money and tied Townsend’s hands and feet before kidnapping her. He then drove her to a spot near his family’s ranch, where he raped and fatally shot her, the court opinion says.

In October 2002, while sitting in a county jail in connection to the rape of another woman, Gonzales confessed to Townsend’s killing and led authorities to her body, court records show.

Gonzales was 18 when he murdered Townsend, his clemency petition says, contending he was in the throes of drug addiction that was “compounded by the trauma and neglect that marked his childhood,” his clemency petition states.

Gonzales’ mother drank and used drugs during her pregnancy and gave her son to her parents when he was born, the petition claims. She had two other children whom she raised, it says, but didn’t acknowledge Gonzales as her son. The petition also says Gonzales was sexually abused throughout his childhood, beginning at age six.

Gonzales began using drugs in his teens, after his aunt – with whom he was close – was killed by a drunken driver, causing him “inconsolable grief,” the petition says.

“In the years that followed, Ramiro’s life spiralled out of control,” it says.

Inmate no longer poses a threat, appeal says

During his years on death row, Gonzales has become a “living testament to the power of rehabilitation and human capacity for growth and change,” his attorneys argued this month in an appeal before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He has become “deeply religious,” has “committed no criminal acts of violence” and has tried to atone for his crimes – in part by trying to donate a kidney.

Ahead of his last execution date, Gonzales sought a 30-day reprieve so he could participate in an altruistic kidney donation. But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice deemed him ineligible under its health care policy, a spokesperson told CNN at the time, because an organ transplant would introduce an “uncertain timeline” that might interfere with an execution date.

Gonzales’ attorneys say that’s just one example of Gonzales’ “growth and rehabilitation,” also citing his commitment to his faith and ministry to others on death row, according to the recent appeal.

Taken together, Gonzales’ attorneys say, this evidence exhibits the inmate is no longer a threat to society, disproving a finding made by his jury at trial that was required for him to be sentenced to death.

Additionally, Gonzales’ lawyers argue the evidence jurors relied upon to make the determination of future dangerousness was wrong: An expert witness for the state testified during the penalty phase of the inmate’s trial that “lots of data” showed sex offenders were likely to continue to commit crimes, citing in part recidivism data.

That data has since been found to be inaccurate, and the expert in 2021 evaluated Gonzales and has recanted his testimony, Gonzales’ appeal states. The expert told The Marshall Project he had never changed his opinion in a capital case prior to this one, calling it “the exception, not the rule.”

When the Court of Criminal Appeals halted Gonzales’ last execution, it sent the case back to his trial court to review the expert’s testimony and whether it impacted the jury’s decision. Gonzales’ appeal says the state recommended relief be denied and that the lower court agreed without holding a hearing. The appeals court ultimately denied relief in June 2023.

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