Texas executes man after Supreme Court rejects latest challenge

When Ramiro Gonzales was sentenced to death in 2006 for the rape and murder of a young woman in Texas, it followed testimony from a psychiatrist who suggested that Mr. Gonzales might very well commit a similar crime in the future if he remained alive.

But nearly two decades later, psychiatrist Dr. Edward Gripon no longer stands by what he told the jury. In a later report, he wrote that he had testified about a statistic showing a high likelihood that those who commit sexual assault will reoffend; That statistic turned out to be unfounded, he said, and after meeting Mr. Gonzales a few years ago, he no longer thought he posed a threat.

The jury that heard Dr. Gripon’s initial testimony concluded that Mr. Gonzales should be sentenced to death. And the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to respond to defense lawyers’ desperate efforts to highlight the psychiatrist’s new reservations and delay the execution.

Mr. Gonzales was pronounced dead at 6:50 p.m. Central Time after a lethal injection. In his final statement, he apologized to the family of the woman he killed and thanked prison officials for giving him the chance “to learn accountability and make amends.”

His trial highlighted the unusual emphasis Texas places on the controversial practice of predicting whether a person convicted of a capital crime is likely to become violent again.

Mr. Gonzales, 41, was accused of kidnapping the victim, Bridget Townsend, in 2001, when they were both 18, then sexually assaulting and killing her, a crime that has not been resolved for over a year. He confessed to the murder after being sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping and rape of another woman.

It was during the sentencing phase of his trial for Ms. Townsend’s murder that attention turned to the likelihood that Mr. Gonzales would commit further acts of violence if he were not executed but sentenced to life in prison. Texas is unique in requiring death penalty juries to determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether the defendant is likely to be violent in the future and whether he presents “an ongoing threat to the society “.

Robin M. Maher, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Texas is the only state to require such a finding.

“Texas requires juries to predict the future to identify who will be punished by death,” Ms. Maher said. “It’s unfair to juries and defendants, and it’s irresponsible for Texas to ask this question.” Predicting future dangerousness is a completely unscientific and unreliable process that only increases the injustice and unpredictability of the death penalty.

In its most recent brief filed with the Supreme Court, the state did not discuss at length the merits of the future dangerousness standard, but said Mr. Gonzales’ lawyers were essentially seeking to overturn the verdict of a jury because a prisoner had behaved well in the case. in the meantime. “This was not the rule at the time of Gonzales’s conviction, and it is not the rule today,” they wrote.

Dr. Gripon was a key witness for the State during the sentencing phase of the trial in 2006. Fifteen years later, in 2021, he met again with Mr. Gonzales and noted his progress in prison and his expressions of remorse. After the visit, Dr. Gripon said he found Mr. Gonzales to be “a very different person both mentally and emotionally,” which he said represented “a very positive change.”

“If this man’s sentence were changed to a life sentence without parole, I don’t think he would be a problem,” Dr. Gripon said in an interview with The Marshall Project in 2022.

Although he told jurors during sentencing hearings that “a lot of data” indicated a recidivism rate of 80 percent or higher for people who committed sexual assault, he acknowledged in his later report that there was no solid research basis for that statistic, the defense said. ” the lawyers said in their petition asking the Supreme Court to stay the execution.

Dr. Gripon did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Gonzales’s lawyers said in a statement after his execution that their client felt deep remorse for his crimes. “Ramiro knew he had taken something from this world that he could never give back,” they wrote. “He lived with that shame every day, and it shaped the person he worked so hard to become.”

Determining recidivism rates for people who commit rape and other sexual assaults has long been a particularly difficult challenge, in part because many sex crimes go unreported or unsolved.

An analysis of state prisoners in the United States found that people imprisoned for rape or sexual assault were more likely to commit one of those crimes again after their release than other former prisoners. The study found that 7.7 percent of people imprisoned for rape or sexual assault were arrested on one of these charges within nine years of their release, compared to 2.6 percent of all released prisoners. .

Mr. Gonzales’ lawyers said his life since his conviction – during which he devoted himself to religion and counseled other prisoners – shows that jurors made the wrong choice when they determined that he was likely to constitute a danger to others.

But even Dr. Gripon’s revised opinion wasn’t enough to overturn Mr. Gonzales’ conviction. Last year, an appeals court concluded that the state’s case was strong, even without Dr. Gripon’s initial testimony or any reliance on flawed statistics, and that Mr. Gonzales’ lawyers had failed to show that the testimony of the then-psychiatrist was material to the jurors’ verdict of death.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, defense lawyers argued this week that Mr. Gonzales’s nearly two decades of positive behavior while on death row proved that jurors were wrong about the danger he represented for society. Since this finding was a prerequisite for his death sentence, they argued, he should no longer be subject to the death penalty.

Patricia Townsend, the victim’s mother, remained unmoved by the defense’s pleas for leniency. She told USA Today this weekend that Mr. Gonzales’s difficult childhood – his lawyers say he was neglected and sexually abused – was no excuse for what he did to her. girl.

“I don’t feel sorry for him at all and I don’t want others to feel sorry for him,” she said.

Abbie VanSickle reports contributed.

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