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Execution halted as court questions whether Ramiro Gonzales should have been sentenced to life in prison

By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

Execution halted as court questions whether Ramiro Gonzales should have been sentenced to life in prison” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of Ramiro Gonzales Monday, two days before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection.

Gonzales, 39, was sentenced to death for kidnapping, raping and killing Bridget Townsend when they were both 18 in Medina County. On Monday, the court said his sentence should be revisited after a state expert said he wrongly told jurors during the 2006 trial that people who commit a sexual assault would be very likely to do it again.

To hand down a death sentence after finding someone guilty of capital murder, jurors must find that the person will likely be a future danger. The only alternative sentence is life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In its ruling, the all-Republican court said it seemed the expert’s statements at trial on recidivism rates “were false and that that false testimony could have affected the jury’s answer to the future dangerousness question at punishment.”

Gonzales’ case will now go back to Medina County, where local officials will weigh the effect of the trial testimony. His guilt in Townsend’s murder is not in question, only his punishment of death over life in prison.

In 2001, Gonzales kidnapped Townsend after she intervened while he was trying to steal drugs at the home of her boyfriend and Gonzales’ dealer, according to court records. He raped her before fatally shooting her. The next year, after he pled guilty to the rape and kidnapping of another woman and received two life sentences, he confessed his guilt in Townsend’s murder and guided police to her remains.

At his trial for Townsend’s death, the defense did not push back when jurors weighed guilt or innocence, and he was quickly found guilty. When jurors were deciding his punishment, however, Medina County prosecutors brought forward Dr. Edward Gripon, a forensic psychiatrist.

“Regarding the likelihood of recidivism for sexual offenses, I testified that there is lots of data out there about the person who commits forcible rape and the likelihood that they will continue that. The percentages are way up in the eighty percentile or better,” Gripon wrote in a May report. “However, we now know this statistic to be inaccurate.”

In his new report, Gripon said that 80% number has been traced to a “bare assertion” in a psychology magazine from the 1980s, written without citations or data by someone without credentials. He said peer-reviewed statistical studies have instead shown the likelihood of committing new sexual offenses is much lower — especially when the offender is young, like Gonzales was.

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

“In such emerging adults, the parts of the brain that enable impulse control and reasoned judgment remain not yet fully developed,” his lawyers argued in recent appeals. “In a very real sense, 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds are not yet the people they will ultimately become.”

According to those who know him now, the same was true for Gonzales. He was abandoned by his teenage mother and never knew his father until they met once in jail, according to his lawyers. As a child, Gonzales was sexually abused, and became addicted to drugs after his aunt was killed by a drunk driver when he was 15.

On death row, he has said he turned to faith, and prison officers and penpals shared with the parole board about his generosity and desire to do good after the crimes of his youth. A spiritual adviser said Gonzales had wished to donate a kidney to one of his congregation’s members when he heard of their illness, but he was not a match.

With a rare blood type, Gonzales’ lawyers asked Gov. Greg Abbott last month to delay his execution for 30 days to find a suitable match. The adviser said Gonzales had hoped “of saving a life after he has taken another.” The governor had not acted before the Texas appeals court halted the execution.

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