Death Watch: Man Set to Die Pleads for His Life

Texas has executed 574 people since 1976; the Board of Pardons and Paroles has recommended clemency for five

Death Watch: Man Set to Die Pleads for His Life

A request for clemency is often the last legal move a death row inmate makes before the state of Texas carries out the execution. It amounts to throwing oneself on the mercy of the Texas death penalty apparatus, particularly the seven members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, who are each paid $125,000 a year, partly to make decisions on clemency petitions. They rarely side with the petitioners. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, Texas has executed 574 people; the BPP has recommended clemency for five.

A remarkable clemency appeal was recently filed on behalf of Ramiro Gonzales, who is scheduled to be executed on July 13 for the kidnapping and murder of 18-year-old Bridget Townsend in 2001. Then, as June came to a close, Gonzales requested a 30 day repreive to donate a kidney before he's killed. He told a reporter for the Marshall Project, "How can I give back life – I think this could be probably one of the closest things to doing that." Kidney donation aside, Gonzales' appeal demonstrates that, as in the cases of so many death row inmates, there was a mountain of evidence of his terrible upbringing that should have been shown to the jury at his murder trial, but wasn't. Had that evidence been presented, it could have helped jury members conclude that he didn't deserve to die.

Much of this evidence concerns Gonzales' relationship, or lack thereof, with his parents. Gonzales was 19 when he met his father for the first time as both sat in the Medina County Jail. His mother was a 17-year-old who drank and abused drugs during her pregnancy; she abandoned him after his birth to be raised by his grandparents on a remote ranch. "Ramiro's mother Julia never acknowledged him as her son or cared for him, even though she had two other children whom she kept and raised," the clemency petition reads. "Julia's rejection was ever-present for Ramiro: she often came to visit the ranch with her two other children and her husband Mario, who resented young Ramiro and would beat, kick, and demean him."

At Gonzales' 2006 trial, his court-appointed attorneys didn't challenge the prosecutors' description of him as someone who "got privileges and opportunities that a lot of other kids don't have," rather than as a child who suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Psychiatrist Edward Gripon testified that Gonzales' murder of Townsend had a "psychosexual sadistic component," which helped convince the jury that Gonzales was a sexual predator who would always be dangerous.

“He takes responsibility for that, and I think that’s a big plus for him. It’s something that I frequently don’t see.” – Psychiatrist Edward Gripon

But as the clemency appeal describes, Dr. Gripon has since reevaluated Gonzales, declaring that he does not pose a threat to society. "Ramiro Gonzales seems very sincere in his remorse," Gripon said in video testimony included with the clemency application. "[He] admits that he is guilty in this particular case [and that] what he did was wrong. He takes responsibility for that, and I think that's a big plus for him. It's something that I frequently don't see."

The clemency petition's authors also call attention to the fact that Gonzales was only two months past his 18th birthday when he murdered Townsend, an age at which scientists now know the brain is still developing, making people less accountable for their actions. In 2020 and 2021, Texas executed two other men who had committed their crimes at a very early age – Billy Wardlow and Quintin Jones. Gonzales, like Wardlow and Jones, has apparently become a different person on death row.

"He is a devoted and supportive friend, someone who practices accountability and values reciprocity in his relationships," the appeal reads. "He is a lover of learning and reading and a skilled artist who makes work for the people he loves. He practices yoga and meditation, and has, in keeping with his desire to do no harm, become a vegetarian. He is introspective, patient, and emotionally generous. He has taught himself how to be the person he always wanted to be."

None of this is likely to mean anything to the members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, however. If they do the thing they're paid so handsomely to do, Gonzales will become the first person killed by the state this year. It will be up to Gov. Greg Abbott whether Gonzales lives long enough to save a life through kidney donation.

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