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As Trial in South Carolina Execution-Method Challenge Begins, Review of State’s Death Penalty Reveals System that is Biased, Arbitrary, and Error-Prone

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As the trial challenging South Carolina’s execution methods began on August 1, 2022, a review of the state’s death penalty by the Greenville News revealed a pattern of discrimination, geographic arbitrariness, and high error rates in the implementation of the punishment.  In a two-part examination, reporter Kathryn Casteel analyzed racial and county demographics on death row, reversal rates in capital cases, and the timing of death sentences to provide context for the state’s efforts to institute the electric chair and firing squad as its primary execution methods. RELATED |  Future of South Carolina death penalty now rests with judge Four of South Carolina’s 35 death-row prisoners are suing the state to block a law that would force them to choose between electrocution and firing squad as methods of execution. One of the men, Richard Moore, wrote in an April legal filing, “I believe this election is forcing me to choose between two unconstitutional methods of execution.” Executions ar

Texas Death-Row Prisoner Seeks Clemency; Doctor Who Called Him a Future Danger Now Says He Was Wrong

Texas death-row prisoner Ramiro Gonzales is seeking clemency from Governor Greg Abbott ahead of his scheduled execution date of July 13, 2022. 

Gonzales’ clemency petition describes the neglect and abuse he experienced as a child, the misrepresentations presented at his trial, and his rehabilitation and transformation during his time on death row. 

The petition also asks that, even if clemency is denied, Gov. Abbott grant Gonzales a reprieve so he can donate one of his kidneys as an act of atonement.

The clemency petition and an accompanying video present the story of Gonzales’ upbringing. Born to a 17-year-old mother who rejected him, Gonzales was raised by his grandparents. One of his cousins described Gonzales’ childhood, saying he received “no love and affection,” and that their grandparents provided him only “the bare minimum of what a human being could have to survive.” 

Gonzales was sexually abused beginning at the age of six. The one source of love and support in his life was his aunt Loretta, but she was killed by a drunk driver when Gonzales was 15. He became addicted to drugs to numb the pain of her loss, and his addiction led directly to the murder for which he was sentenced to death.

At Gonzales’ trial, his attorneys failed to investigate his upbringing, so the jury only heard the prosecution’s false version of his childhood. The state also presented testimony from psychiatrist Dr. Edward Gripon, who diagnosed Gonzales with antisocial personality disorder and argued that he would “be a threat wherever he goes.” 

Under Texas law, a death sentence can only be imposed if the jury finds that the defendant is likely to present a future danger. After meeting with Gonzales again more recently, Dr. Gripon retracted his trial testimony. Dr. Gripon concluded that Gonzales “does not pose a threat of future danger to society.” He said that the sincerity of Gonzales’ remorse is something he has rarely seen in the 8000 evaluations he has conducted. “If his sentence is commuted, I think that would be a positive thing for all of us,” Dr. Gripon said.

In addition to Dr. Gripon’s assessment of Gonzales’ rehabilitation, the clemency petition also presents statements from current and former correctional officials who spent time with him on death row. One said he “has never shown any sign of aggression.” Another described how Gonzales reached out to her when her mother died, offering to pray for her and her mother. She said he “always thinks about the other person. That’s who he is as a person.” 

During his time in prison, Gonzales has become deeply religious, and completed a bachelor’s degree through a correspondence course seminary. In Gonzales’ own words, “I’m definitely not the person I was 20 years ago.”

Bias in future dangerousness findings for Latinx defendants has recently drawn scrutiny. In an amicus brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Arizona death-row prisoner John Montenegro Cruz, LatinoJustice PRLDEF focused on bias in juror assumptions about the future dangerousness of defendants of color. 

LatinoJustice’s brief cited a 2012 survey that found 58% of respondents thought “violent” described Hispanic individuals slightly or moderately well. The brief also summarized research showing “that jury-eligible participants strongly associated Latino men with ‘Danger’ and white men with ‘Safety,’ and that they held similar dangerousness stereotypes for Latino men as they do for Black men.”

Gonzales was just 71 days past his 18th birthday at the time of his offense, making him barely eligible for a death sentence. His attorneys say, “Contemporary research in developmental psychology and neuroscience establishes that adolescent brain development continues well into the third decade of life.”

Gonzales has undergone medical screening to donate a kidney, and was found to be “an excellent candidate for donation.” Because he has a rare blood type, he was not a match with the intended recipient he had identified, but it is highly likely that his kidney donation could fill an urgent need elsewhere. His clemency petition explains, “because of the impending execution date, TDCJ has been unwilling to allow Ramiro to make an ‘altruistic’ kidney donation to a person unknown to him.”

Gonzales also has litigation pending in state and federal courts. Gonzales is challenging his death sentence before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He argues that his death sentence should be vacated because of the state’s use of false testimony about his future dangerousness and the facts of the crime and because of his age at the time of the crime. 

On July 6, a federal judge ordered Texas prison officials to grant Gonzales’ request for religious accommodations at his execution, which include allowing his spiritual advisor to hold his hand during the execution.

Source: Death Penalty Information Center, Staff, July 8, 2022


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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