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Texas Set to Execute Christian Leader on Death Row for 2001 Murder

By William Melhado and Kayla Guo, The Texas Tribune,

The State of Texas is set to execute Ramiro Gonzales on Wednesday evening for a 2001 murder he committed when he was 18. His latest legal challenges were based in part on his mother’s alcohol use while she was pregnant with him and the sexual abuse he suffered as a child.

In recent pleadings, Gonzales, now 41, said that he never received a proper post-conviction review and that he sought to reduce his sentence to life in prison. Gonzales also argued that he is ineligible for capital punishment since a state expert recanted testimony that Gonzales would always pose a risk of violence to others — a finding that is required to receive the death penalty under Texas state law.

While serving time for an unrelated assault in 2002, Gonzales confessed to the rape and murder of Bridget Townsend in Medina County, west of San Antonio, and guided police to her remains. Gonzales fatally shot Townsend in 2001, when both were 18 years old, after she intervened while he was trying to steal drugs at the home of her boyfriend, who was his drug dealer, according to court records.

In a clemency application, Gonzales said that while on death row since 2006, he has devoted his life to Christianity and served as a spiritual leader for others facing the death penalty. On Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously rejected Gonzales’ request for leniency.

In a statement on Monday, Gonzales’ attorneys, Thea Posel and Raoul Schonemann, called their client “a man who today is, in almost every sense, a different person than he was when he killed Bridget Townsend in 2001.”

“Ramiro lives this transformation every day,” they said, “and it is evident to prison officials, faith leaders, friends, family, his lawyers and many people across the country and the world who have seen and been touched by his story, his growth, his faith and his commitment to change.”

A pleading filed this month by Gonzales’ legal team challenging his death sentence asserted that he didn’t receive effective counsel during his post-conviction review. His initial petition for that review was deemed “frivolous” by the courts.

Gonzales’ court-appointed lawyer at the time did not conduct an investigation and failed to present evidence in the initial petition that Gonzales’ mother regularly drank alcohol during her pregnancy, a June pleading read. Gonzales was later diagnosed with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The initial petition also failed to outline the impact of sexual abuse by a family member that Gonzales endured throughout his childhood, according to court filings.

Gonzales never had the “one full and fair opportunity” to file an adequate habeas petition, Posel said.

Posel said such a deficient initial petition would not happen today, now that attorneys and investigators from the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs, which opened in 2010, are available for nearly all capital post-conviction cases.

Gonzales’ pleading this month cited research about his childhood conducted by Kate Porterfield, a clinical psychologist who studies the impact of trauma on children.

“The crimes that he committed are tragically and inextricably linked to the trauma he suffered and the lack of care provided to him,” Porterfield said of Gonzales’ childhood.

The failure to properly investigate and present this evidence during Gonzales’ initial habeas petition showed that his lawyer was ineffective, his current legal team argued while asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider its dismissal. The state’s highest criminal court denied the request on Monday.

Gonzales’ legal team asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ denial and halt his execution, arguing that Gonzales does not present a future danger to others and so cannot be executed under Texas law. That petition was still pending as of Wednesday morning.

In his clemency application, Gonzales said he feels daily remorse for his actions and the impact the killing has had on Townsend’s family.

“I took everything that was valuable from a mother, just because of my stupidity, because of what I did, because of my actions. And you can’t give that back,” Gonzales said in a video submitted to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on June 4 as part of his clemency application.

In 2022, Gonzales requested a reprieve to donate a kidney to a stranger, which was denied. But that same year, the court halted Gonzales’ execution to consider the false testimony by Dr. Edward Gripon, a forensic psychiatrist.

During the punishment phase of Gonzales’ trial, Gripon had testified that there was substantial evidence that people who commit rape will likely continue committing sexual offenses. Gripon later reported that those statistics are inaccurate. State courts ruled that despite the reversal, the execution could take place.

Gonzales’ attorneys had also attempted to halt his execution because of his age at the time of the crime. They cited multiple studies and medical or legal associations that have proposed raising the age for death penalty eligibility from 18 to 21, based on brain development.

Alongside his clemency application, a group of faith leaders had sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, asking him to spare Gonzales’ life and allow him to spend the rest of his life serving others in custody.

“Even if he never sees the light of day as a free person, he can bring that inner light to others in the darkest corners of our society just by being there and sharing the faith he has,” said Cantor Michael Zoosman, co-founder of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty, in the clemency video.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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FM Editors
FM Editors
Faithfully Magazine is a fresh, bold and exciting news and culture publication that covers issues, conversations and events impacting Christian communities of color.

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