Execution of Texas death row inmate Ramiro Gonzales postponed

Thousands of miles and circumstances separate a Jewish cleric based in Maryland and a death row inmate in Texas. But the lives of the two men have been entwined with dozens of handwritten letters over the past year. We distance ourselves from cantor and chaplain Michael Zoosman: a February 2021 response from the Polunsky unit prison in which Ramiro Gonzales offered donate a kidney to one of Zoosman’s faithful.

Gonzales has been on death row since 2006, when he was convicted of the 2001 murder of an 18-year-old woman. He was 18 at the time of the shooting and was a drug addict after an abusive childhood, his lawyers said. Now, in an attempt to atone for his crime, he has requested temporary release to undergo the organ donation operation.

The state of Texas, however, will not allow it. Officials objected to the procedure due to the approach of Gonzales’ execution date. On Monday, the Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Gonzales’ request for a 180-day reprieve so he could have the surgery before being put to death. His lawyers had also asked Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s office for a 30-day reprieve for Gonzales, but said they received no response.

The time was running out, with Gonzales’ execution scheduled for Wednesday. But right after his kidney donation request was denied, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution over a concern about an expert witness decades ago during Gonzales’ trial.

It’s unclear if the legal deadline will allow Gonzales to donate the kidney.

Zoosman, the co-founder of an advocacy group called L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty, first got involved in the case after writing a letter to Gonzales last year — this his organization routinely does for inmates with scheduled execution dates. A month into their correspondence, Zoosman mentioned that a devotee needed a kidney. Gonzales was no match but still offered his organ to any stranger in need – a gesture according to Zoosman “demonstrates the inherent humanity of the people we seek to kill”.

Since then, activists, lawyers and patients awaiting donations have argued for Gonzales’ request, citing the chronic shortage of vital organs; in the United States, an average of 17 people die every day while waiting for a transplant. Yet cases where death row inmates have been allowed to become altruistic organ donors are rare. Practical and ethical concerns have kept it from becoming widespread practice, said David Orentlicher, director of the health law program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Some experts have argued that detainees’ organs could be medically unfit, taking into account the sanitary conditions in the prisons. Others noted that the process can be used as a way for prisoners to delay their execution or plead for sentence reductions. And Orentlicher, who previously directed the American Medical Association’s medical ethics program, sees other potential pitfalls.

“If we have a policy that death row inmates can donate their organs, will that influence juries when they try to decide or judges decide what kind of sentence to impose?” he said. “Well, it might make them more inclined to impose a death sentence, knowing that these people will be able to donate their organs. You’d hope they wouldn’t think that way, but it’s a significant concern.

Still, Orentlicher said, there is a strong case for allowing Gonzales to give up his kidney. The procedure won’t kill him, and “we let the living donate kidneys all the time.” There’s also the fact that Gonzales made the offer knowing he would still be executed.

“He can’t bring back the life he took,” Orentlicher said. “But if he can save another life, that’s an important way to make amends, and that’s very valuable.”

Some patients who have waited years for organs agree with that assessment — especially since Gonzales has a rare blood type that makes him an “excellent candidate” for donation. The operation could be carried out within a month, wrote his lawyers in a letter of June 29 at Abbott.

“Imagine a potential recipient who waited perhaps 6 years or more for an elusive type B kidney, feeling sicker and more hopeless with each passing day, wrote Judy Frith, potential recipient and cancer survivor in Washington, D.C. Sunday in a separate letter. at Abbott. “You have the ability to save that person’s life by allowing Mr. Gonzales to donate.”

Nearly 106,000 US residents await lifesaving transplants

In a clemency video shared with The Washington Post, Gonzales said he was no longer the person he was at the time of the murder. More than 20 years ago, “drugs were the only way to drown out the pain” of an aunt’s neglect, physical and sexual abuse and death, Gonzales said. To “steal cocaine”, he kidnapped, sexually assaulted and then killed his dealer’s girlfriend, Bridget Townsend, according to court documents. When arrested for an unrelated crime, he confessed to the murder and led the police to the woman’s remains.

At trial, an expert witness for the prosecution said Gonzales “would be a threat wherever he went” – a claim the expert retracted and which was discredited, the Marshall Project reported. But Texas law requires jurors in death penalty cases to consider the likelihood of a repeat offense, and Gonzales was sentenced to death in 2006.

In prison, Gonzales said his mission was “to be an instrument in people’s lives” to make amends for his crime. Fellow inmates noted Gonzales’ transformation “into a caring and driven individual,” according to the Death Row Soul Collective.

When Zoosman wrote his letter of support to Gonzales last year, Gonzales responded immediately. Since then, the two have been on a “roller coaster” of despair and hope, frustration and elation, Zoosman said.

On Monday, after learning that Gonzales’ request to donate a kidney had been denied, Zoosman wrote an email to Gonzales, asking him what song he would like to sing during his online vigil during the execution.

With a whoosh, the message was sent, and Zoosman mentally prepared himself to record himself praying Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. …Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. But seconds later, he was informed of Gonzales’ stay of execution.

The update, he said, could give Gonzales an opportunity to continue fighting for his kidney donation. But, for now, there is a relief, a feeling as if “the angel of death has at least been stopped this time”.

“The chaim! Zoosman said – “to life” in Hebrew.

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