“You could only be so fortunate to grow up . . . where there are so many people . . . taking care of you and looking out for you.”
In 2006, Texas prosecutors told this story to explain why Ramiro Gonzales, a teenager barely turned 18, deserved to die for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of 19-year-old Bridget Townsend. Dismissing evidence of childhood abuse and trauma, prosecutors portrayed Gonzales as being raised on a “beautiful, gorgeous ranch,” surrounded by caring adults.
In Texas, capital murder sentences require the “probability that the defendant . . . would constitute a continuing threat to society,” otherwise known as the “future dangerousness” standard. The state, supported by an expert who has since recanted his testimony diagnosing Gonzales with “antisocial personality disorder,” contended that Gonzales posed this future danger, even if sentenced to life without parole. Gonzales, the state argued, was “the worst of the worst. He’s a sexual predator and a murderer and he’ll never stop.”
There was just one problem. Neither the description of Gonzales’ past nor the prediction of his “future dangerousness” was true.
In fact, Gonzales’ childhood was one of nonstop physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by the very caregivers the state extolled as caring adults. Gonzales’ teenage mother abused alcohol and drugs, and immediately abandoned him to his grandparents. As a child, Gonzales was a frequent target of intoxicated adults who beat him in the presence of other adults, who did not intervene.
Even worse, sexual abuse of children ran rampant in Gonzales’ family. Gonzales’ teenage mother and her four siblings all experienced sexual abuse as children, and all five attempted suicide. When Gonzales was four years old, a male cousin began sexually assaulting him in the home and nearby woods. When Gonzales was 12, a 19-year-old woman sexually assaulted him, resulting in the birth of his child.
Gonzales recalls wondering: “Why isn’t anybody doing anything?”
However, adult supervision was non-existent. The manager of the ranch remembers Gonzales “alone crawling outside in diapers and . . . drinking dirty water with a dog.” Later, Gonzales roamed the ranch with other children, using alcohol and drugs. Sometimes, the adults joined them.
This history helps explain why Gonzales began amassing a juvenile record. Police arrested Gonzales when he was 14 for public intoxication after finding him on a bridge threatening to jump. As a teenager, Gonzales used crack, methamphetamine, LSD and inhalants.
Despite these obvious warning signs, neither his teachers nor law enforcement ever intervened in Gonzales’ home. Then, in the years before he committed the crime for which he sits on death row, juvenile services lost track of him.
Perhaps if rural counties in Texas had robust juvenile services, Gonzales might have received the support he desperately needed. These services recognize that youth must be treated differently from adults – even when they commit terrible crimes – because of their immaturity and capacity for rehabilitation.
Contemporary science supports this insight. Studies reveal that key regions of the brain do not develop fully until early adulthood. This finding led the United States Supreme Court to conclude that juvenile death sentences violate the Constitution, while the American Bar Association recommends suspending capital punishment for people who, like Gonzales, were under the age of 21 at the time they committed the crime.
The use of Texas’ “future dangerousness” standard for youth flies in the face of this consensus. Indeed, predictions of Gonzales’ future dangerousness proved false. Today, Gonzales is a model inmate who embraces the Christian faith and expresses profound remorse for his crimes. The state expert who previously labeled Gonzales an “antisocial personality” recanted his testimony. The state should follow, and commute Gonzales’ death sentence to life in prison without parole.
Gonzales’ final appeal for clemency is in the hands of Governor Greg Abbott. His execution is scheduled for July 13.
Bush is the Chair of the Department of Communication, History, & Philosophy at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Opinion: Why the 'future dangerousness' standard failed death row inmate