Thursday, June 20, 2024


A Reason Not to Execute


A version of this piece appears in today's Waco Tribune Herald:

Change is a Reason Not to Execute Ramiro Gonzales

By Mark Osler


I’ve spent the past three decades as a federal prosecutor, a state prosecutor,

and a professor who trains future prosecutors. In that time, one constant has

become abundantly clear: our criminal justice system too often fails to recognize

the truth that sometimes people change.


The latest subject of this failing will likely be Ramiro Gonzales, who is going 

to be executed by the State of Texas on June 26 unless last-minute measures

succeed. Gonzales’s crimes were terrible: At age 18, he kidnapped, raped, and

murdered a young woman named Bridget Townsend. It wasn’t his only serious

offense, either; eight months later he sexually assaulted Florence Teich. He

admitted to both crimes and received a life sentence for the sexual assault of Teich

and the death penalty for Townsend’s murder. This is not a case of innocence, but

one with a more complicated presentation, and one that appeals to a more complex



Gonzales wants to live. He has no delusions that he will be freed—and there

is no chance that he will be—but wants to live out his life in prison, ministering to

the others who are incarcerated. His change is rooted in faith. Because of his

embrace of Christianity, Gonzales has become someone worthwhile within the

prison who causes no problems and focuses his attention on religious activities.


One would think that such a faith-based change would appeal to those who

control his fate in Texas. Jesus often taught the value of mercy, and even (in John

8) interceded and stopped a legal execution, of a woman accused of adultery. More

importantly, Jesus’s teachings and actions were premised expressly on the belief

that people could change in fundamental ways—even be “born again.” One would

expect a largely Christian state to lead the way in acting from that belief.


The structure of Texas’s death penalty process is part of the problem. For

someone to be condemned to death at sentencing, a jury has to find that “there is a

probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would

constitute a continuing threat to society.” It’s a bizarre standard, given that the

degree of probability isn’t defined and that it’s unclear how an imprisoned person

(life in prison without parole is the only alternative to death in a capital case) could

pose a threat to the larger society. Beyond that, though, is a special kind of hubris:

that we can really say we know what an 18-year-old will be like when they are 40

or 50 or 70. We all know of people who have changed in remarkable ways over the

course of their lives.


Christian conversion is not the only way people dramatically change

themselves, of course. Some find that change in being loved by someone. Others

are moved by the example of another person, or a faith other than Christianity. I

worked on the clemency petition of one man, Rudy Martinez, whose life was

changed when he discovered literature. He received a commutation from a life

sentence from President Obama in 2016 and has thrived as a productive citizen

since his release.


For Christians, though, capital punishment has proven complicated. The

institution would not survive without the support of Christians in those states

where it still exists, yet the most prominent opponent of the death penalty in our

time has been a Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean. Christians will sometimes

justify the death penalty by reference to the adage “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a

tooth,” which appears three times in the Old Testament. Perhaps less often cited is

Jesus’s explicit rejection of that adage in the Book of Matthew, where he says

“You have heard it was said, an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth,” and suggests

instead that if someone slaps you, you are to offer them the other cheek.


People have been making bad decisions on clemency for centuries, of

course. Jesus himself was considered for clemency before his execution, when

Pilate allowed a crowd to choose between Jesus and Barabbas, an insurrectionist

and possibly a murderer (spoiler alert: they picked Barabbas). But it would be

particularly strange for a state as identified with Christianity as Texas to reject a

tenant of the faith: that people can change.

Why do you believe the Southern Baptist Convention to be "Christian"? Because they say so?

Also, to these "Christians" Mr. Gonzales is loved by Jesus. Because of that, they can freely hate him.

But I am pretty sure these people will be asked how they have treated the "least of their bretheren". No, not the beggar in their churchyard. People like Mr.Gonzales.
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