By Ariel Peterson
AUSTIN, TX— The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this month granted a stay of execution to Ramiro Gonzales after an expert witness in his case, psychiatrist Dr. Edward Gripon, re-examined Gonzales and concluded the testimony he gave at Gonzales’s trial had been false.
This development came two days prior to Gonzales’s scheduled execution date.
At his trial in 2006, Gonzales was sentenced to death after he was found guilty of capital murder in the course of committing any or all of the following offenses: (1) aggravated sexual assault, (2) kidnapping, or (3) robbery, according to the subsequent application for writ of habeas corpus submitted on June 30, 2022, by Gonzales’s counsel.
He had recently turned 18 years old in 2001 when he allegedly committed the aforementioned crimes, which included the kidnapping, rape and murder of a woman named Bridget Townsend, who had been the girlfriend of his drug dealer.
His age was crucial in determining the type of punishment he would face; as an adult, his age was one of two factors that made him eligible to receive the death penalty.
The second factor was the testimony at trial by psychiatrist Gripon. After spending only three hours examining the accused, Dr. Gripon testified Gonzales had antisocial personality disorder, which he described as “a condition in which the person has repeated criminal acts, and will have a lack of social conscience, with no life plan and little remorse,” according to the habeas application.
Gripon also believed Gonzales had “some type of significant underlying psychosexual disorder,” and further asserted “sexual assault has the highest continuum of recidivism,” indicating to the Medina County jury that Gonzales’s rape of Townsend demonstrated a high probability Gonzales would continue to pose a threat to the safety of those around him.
Gripon’s testimony about the potential longevity of Gonzales’s dangerous behavior not only helped the jury convict Gonzales, but encouraged them to deliver a death sentence, said Gonzales’ lawyers.
Gonzales’s circumstances are unique, according to the Marshall Project, which noted “only Texas requires that jurors in death penalty cases try to predict the future by deciding ‘whether there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society.’”
This requirement has resulted in Texas leading the U.S. in most executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
After meeting again with Gonzales last September, Gripon has concluded that his testimony at Gonzales’ trial was false, noting Gonzales has changed demonstrably since his conviction, from a troubled teen traumatized from abandonment by his parents, the death of his aunt and an addiction to drugs, to a yoga practitioner, college graduate, and religious speaker on his prison’s radio station.
Gonzales has also volunteered to donate his kidney. Speaking to the Marshall Project, Gonzales said he wanted to be able to “give back life,” attempting to act in opposition to the crime he committed.
Some initial efforts to delay Gonzales’s execution were even made to allow for such a donation. Gonzales’s clear personal transformation hardly reflects Gripon’s initial analysis, said lawyers.
In fact, upon reevaluation, Gripon found no evidence of the previously-diagnosed antisocial personality disorder in Gonzales, adding that a person with the disorder does not experience change in their personality over time, so Gonzales’s transformation cannot be consistent with the diagnosis. This finding discredits one of the major premises on which Gripon’s predictions about Gonzales’s future had rested at trial.
Not only was Gripon’s diagnosis incorrect, but so was the “evidence” about the association between perpetrators of sexual assault and high recidivism rates. Gripon had identified an 80 percent recidivism rate for sex offenders, but this number has been investigated and proven to be arbitrary.
As reported in the New York Times, the 80 percent rate is “an entirely invented number.” Gonzales’s habeas application includes further evidence that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is much lower than even 50 percent.
In addition to the recidivism rate being substantially lower than the number given to the jury at trial, sexual assault also does not have “the highest continuum of recidivism,” as Gripon had testified.
Quite the opposite—Gonzales’s habeas application finds recidivism rates for sex offenders are actually lower than those for other types of crimes.
Gonzales’s age when he committed his crimes became important once again. Gripon also failed to inform the jury that recidivism rates are lower for juvenile offenders than adult offenders. Gonzales having just passed the threshold for adulthood, this information would have been useful in determining a more accurate picture of his future behavior, lawyers argued.
Beyond Gripon’s new findings, Gonzales’ counsel said in their habeas application the prosecution introduced blatantly false evidence at trial from Gonzales’s cellmate, who had been threatened by officers with a harsher sentence if he did not testify against Gonzales.
In light of his cellmate’s recantation of his testimony, Gonzales’ death sentence violates the Eighth Amendment, Gonzales’ lawyers maintained.
On July 11, 2022, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals responded to Gonzales’s habeas application.
The Court only found merit in the claim “testimony of recidivism rates Gripon gave at trial were false and that that false testimony could have affected the jury’s answer to the future dangerousness question at punishment,” but since this evidence would thus need to be reviewed by the trial court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Gonzales’ execution.
Gonzales’s stay of execution comes two months after the same court stayed the execution of Melissa Lucio, who was also convicted based on false testimony and a lack of scientific evidence.
Unlike Gonzales, however, Lucio was innocent of the crime for which she was convicted.
The next execution date in Texas is set for Aug. 17, for Kosoul Chanthakoummane.
After the previous two set executions in Texas were both stayed due to false evidence, Texas’s policy of determining death sentences based on a jury’s prediction of the threat an accused person poses in the future is called into question.
More broadly, the use of false evidence to convict Ramiro Gonzales, Melissa Lucio, and others like them suggests, note lawyers and anti-death penalty advocates, that an examination of the confidence any jury can have in delivering a death sentence may be necessary.