Texas parole board denies clemency to Ramiro Gonzales, to be executed Wednesday despite expert witness walking back testimony

Texas’ parole board on Monday 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 Gov. 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.

The board voted 7-0 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: On Monday, he asked the US Supreme Court for a stay of execution soon after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected an appeal in which the inmate argued 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 argued, as shown by Gonzales’ redemption behind bars and his earlier attempts to donate a kidney.

Thus, Gonzales should be ineligible for execution, his attorneys contended, and executing him would violate his constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Additionally, they argued Texas had violated the Eighth Amendment by requiring a finding of “future dangerousness” for a capital sentence without providing an opportunity for it to be reviewed in post-conviction proceedings.

Gonzales and his attorneys advanced similar arguments in their appeals before the US Supreme Court, which they’ve asked to review the Texas appeals court decision and intervene.

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 United States. On Thursday, Oklahoma intends to execute Richard Rojem, who was convicted of the 1984 kidnapping, rape and murder of his 7-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.

If both Gonzales and Rojem are put to death, their executions would be the eighth and ninth to take place in the nation this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that monitors and analyzes 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 center’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 Texas execution chamber is seen in Huntsville. - Pat Sullivan/AP/FILE
The Texas execution chamber is seen in Huntsville. - Pat Sullivan/AP/FILE

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 Towsend’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 6.

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 spiraled 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 his 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 said 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 said, 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 argued 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 he had diagnosed Gonzales with antisocial personality disorder, and 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, including the diagnosis, Gonzales’ appeal stated. 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 said 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.

CNN’s John Fritze contributed to this report.

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