Ramiro Gonzales: Texas court pauses execution after questions raised about expert testimony

Case featured in Marshall Project investigation co-published by ‘The Independent’

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Tuesday 12 July 2022 05:14 BST
Biden through the years: The death penalty

A Texas appeals court has temporarily stayed the execution of Ramiro Gonzales, who was sentenced to death for kidnapping, raping and killing an associate named Bridget Townsend in 2001 when they both were 18.

Gonzales, now 39, was set to die by lethal injection on Wednesday before the court intervened.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held on Monday that Gonzales had made a convincing initial showing that an expert who testified in his sentencing hearing gave “false” information about how much of a future danger he might pose, a key part of the legal basis for a death sentence.

During the punishment phase of the 2006 trial, a psychiatrist named Edward Gripon claimed that those who commit sexual assault have an “extremely high” rate of recidivism, as much as 80 per cent. Gonzales’s attorneys argued later reviews suggested there wasn’t any evidentiary basis for this figure.

“That false testimony could have affected the jury’s answer to the future dangerousness question at punishment,” the appeals court wrote in its Monday decision.

The 39-year-old’s case, and Mr Gripon’s growing doubts over his role in it, were the subject of a Marshall Project report co-published this week by The Independent.

The Texas appeals court sent the case back down to the trial level for further review.

In June, Gonzales appealed to Texas governor Greg Abbott to stay the execution, to give the 39-year-old time to donate a kidney to a stranger in what his attorneys called “his efforts to atone for his crimes”.

The death row inmate’s attorneys said they had identified two potential donors, including a cancer survivor in Washington with a rare blood type who had spent years waiting for a transplant.

“It seems almost impossible, but God moves in mysterious ways,” Judy Frith, the potential recipient, wrote in a letter submitted to the governor alongside the one from Gonzales. “Whether or not Mr Gonzales could donate to me, I cannot emphasize enough what a precious gift you would be giving someone if you allowed Mr Gonzales the opportunity to donate his kidney.”

The state corrections department, which allowed Gonzales to get evaluated for the potential kidney donation, said in July it would not allow the transplant to go forward given the impending execution, telling CNN last week it could introduce an “uncertain timeline, thereby possibly interfering with the court-ordered execution date.”

The Independent has contacted the state department of corrections for comment.

An organ donation from death row isn’t the only unorthodox part of the Ramiro Gonzales case.

Mr Gripon, the psychiatrist, concluded that Gonzales had the signs of “antisocial personality disorder” after spending three hours with him, a determination that would influence his testimony during the death penalty trial.

The doctor would later tell The Marshall Project he had his doubts about that diagnosis, and about the overall accuracy and utility of predictions about future dangerousness, saying he wasn’t sure he had any unique insights compared with “anyone with similar intelligence and the same facts”.

Despite his eventual doubts, such predictions were used numerous times in Texas, which has executed four times more people than any other state in modern US history, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

One psychiatrist, James Grigson of Dallas, even earned the nickname “Dr Death” and claimed he could make “100 per cent and absolute” predictions that those on trial would kill again.

Ramiro Gonzales confessed to the killing and said a visit from a “cowboy minister” in prison inspired him to change his life.

In prison, Gonzales took yoga, earned the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree from a Bible college and started writing sermons for the prison’s radio station.

“How can I give back life? This is probably one of the closest things to doing that,” he told the Marshall Project. “I don’t want to say it’s saving somebody’s life, but it’s keeping somebody from dying.”

The Texas Attorney General’s Office could challenge the appeals court decision.

The Independent has reached out to the office for comment.

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