Texas Execution Centers on a Jury’s Assessment of ‘Future Dangerousness’

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

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

The jury that heard Dr. Gripon’s initial testimony concluded that Mr. Gonzales should be sentenced to death, and despite desperate efforts by defense lawyers to highlight the psychiatrist’s new reservations, Mr. Gonzales was scheduled to be executed Wednesday evening by lethal injection.

The case has highlighted the unusual importance that Texas places on the contentious practice of predicting whether a person convicted of a capital crime is likely to be violent again.

Mr. Gonzales, 41, was accused of kidnapping the victim, Bridget Townsend, in 2001 when both of them were 18 years old and then sexually assaulting and killing her, a crime that went unsolved for more than a year. He confessed to the killing after he was sentenced to life in prison for the abduction and rape of another woman.

It was at the sentencing phase of his trial in the killing of Ms. Townsend that the focus turned to how likely it was that Mr. Gonzales would carry out further acts of violence if he were not executed but sentenced to life in prison. Texas is unusual in requiring death penalty juries to make a determination, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether the defendant is likely to be violent in the future and presents “a continuing threat to society.”

Robin M. Maher, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Texas and Oregon — a state where no one is on death row — are the only states to require such a finding.

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

In its most recent brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, the state did not discuss at length the merits of the future dangerousness standard but said that Mr. Gonzales’s lawyers were essentially asking to nullify a jury’s verdict because a prisoner had been on good behavior in the meantime. “That was not the rule at the time of Gonzales’s conviction, and it’s 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 self-improvement in prison and his expressions of remorse. After the visit, Dr. Gripon said he had found Mr. Gonzales to be “a significantly different person both mentally and emotionally,” which he said represented “a very positive change.”

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

Though he had told jurors during the sentencing hearings that “lots of data” pointed to a recidivism rate of 80 percent or higher for people who committed sexual assault, he acknowledged in his subsequent report that there was no solid research foundation for that statistic, defense lawyers said in a petition asking the Supreme Court to halt the execution.

Dr. Gripon did not respond to requests for comment.

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

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

Mr. Gonzales’s lawyers have said that his life since being convicted — during which he has devoted himself to religion and counseled other prisoners — shows that jurors made the wrong call when they determined he was likely to be a danger to others.

But even Dr. Gripon’s revised opinion has not been enough to overturn Mr. Gonzales’s sentence. Last year, an appeals court concluded that the state’s case was strong even without Dr. Gripon’s original testimony or any reliance on faulty statistics and that Mr. Gonzales’s lawyers had not shown that the psychiatrist’s testimony at the time was essential to the jurors’ death verdict.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, defense lawyers were arguing this week that Mr. Gonzales’s nearly two decades of positive behavior while on death row prove that jurors were wrong about the danger he presents to society. Since that finding was a prerequisite to sentencing him to death, they contended, he should no longer be subject to the death penalty.

Patricia Townsend, the mother of the victim, has remained unmoved by the defense’s appeals for clemency. She told USA Today over the weekend that Mr. Gonzales’s troubled childhood — his lawyers say he was neglected and sexually abused — was no excuse for what he did to her daughter.

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



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