A Texas death row inmate is seeking a 30-day reprieve to donate a kidney. An appeals court has issued an execution stay for a different reason
By Dakin Andone, CNN
(CNN) -- A Texas death row inmate who'd asked for his execution to be delayed so he can donate a kidney was granted a stay of execution Monday on an unrelated appeal over allegedly false testimony during the penalty phase of his trial.
Ramiro Gonzales, 39, who was to be executed Wednesday, had asked Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in late June for a 30-day delay of his execution so he could make a kidney donation -- a desire his attorneys say stems from his efforts to make amends for the murder that made him a condemned man.
The lawyers will "continue pushing for him to have this opportunity," they said Monday, after a state appeals court issued the stay over whether prosecutors presented "false and materially inaccurate expert testimony" when a jury was deciding whether to sentence Gonzales to death for the 2001 murder of Bridget Townsend.
An expert witness, Dr. Edward Gripon, testified he believed Gonzales presented a future danger -- a determination a jury must make in Texas before sentencing someone to death -- in part citing recidivism data.
Gripon has since recanted his testimony and no longer believes Gonzales presents a future danger, according to the inmate's June 30 petition for habeas corpus. In addition, the recidivism data Gripon used has since been found to be inaccurate.
In its ruling Monday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sent the case back to the trial court to review whether Gripon gave false testimony regarding the recidivism rates and whether that testimony impacted the jury's decision. The determination of whether Gonzales presents a future danger is handled at trial and would not be reevaluated, the court wrote.
Two other claims in the petition were denied review. CNN has reached out to Gripon for comment.
Gonzales' attorneys are "grateful for the Court's decision and our day in court," they said in a statement.
'He still wants to save a life'
The stay of execution means Gonzales will not be put to death Wednesday. But it could also open up the possibility the inmate will be able to make a kidney donation, something his attorneys wrote in a letter to Texas' governor last month was "in keeping with his efforts to atone for his crimes."
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which let Gonzales get evaluated for the organ donation, had objected to Gonzales' donation efforts because of his impending execution date, his lawyers wrote in the letter June 29, asking the governor to grant a 30-day reprieve so the donation could be made.
"He still wants to save a life," Cantor Michael Zoosman, an ordained Jewish clergyman whose letters with Gonzales first catalyzed the inmate's desire to donate a kidney, told CNN before the stay of execution was granted. "And Texas is denying him that."
Gonzales initially sought to donate his kidney to a member of a Jewish congregation in Maryland whom he'd learned about in correspondence with Zoosman. But his rare blood type meant he was not a match. After that, he sought to make an altruistic kidney donation, that is, to donate his kidney without a known or intended recipient.
However, he was deemed ineligible under the state criminal justice department's health care policy, a department spokesperson confirmed July 3 to CNN. The agency does not allow an altruistic kidney donation because it could introduce an "'uncertain timeline, thereby possibly interfering with the court-ordered execution date'" and does not guarantee coverage of the costs, it told Gonzales' attorneys, they said in a statement.
Since then, at least two "preliminarily compatible" kidney recipients have been identified, including a cancer survivor in Bellingham, Washington, with the same rare blood type as Gonzales who has spent four years on dialysis "hoping for a lifesaving kidney transplant," the inmate's lawyers wrote Monday to the governor in a letter they shared with CNN.
"It seems almost impossible, but God moves in mysterious ways," wrote the potential recipient, Judy Frith, in a letter Sunday to Abbott that Gonzales' attorneys submitted with their own. "Whether or not Mr. Gonzales could donate to me, I cannot emphasize enough what a precious gift you would be giving someone if you allowed Mr. Gonzales the opportunity to donate his kidney."
CNN has reached out to the governor's office for comment.
Gonzales' attorneys had also asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend that the governor commute their client's sentence to life in prison, their statement said. Alternately, they requested a 180-day reprieve to complete a potential kidney donation.
But on Monday, the board voted against the request, refusing to recommend a commutation or a 180-day reprieve, according to the results of the vote shared by the board.
Gonzales 'very eager' to make donation
Gonzales was convicted in 2006 for capital murder in Townsend's killing. Gonzales, who was 18 at the time, was looking to get drugs one day in January 2001 from Townsend's boyfriend, who was his drug supplier, according to a court of appeals opinion from 2009.
When he called, Townsend answered the phone and told Gonzales her boyfriend was at work. Gonzales then went to the home "in order to steal cocaine," stole money, tied Townsend's hands and feet and kidnapped her, the records state. Gonzales then drove Townsend to a location near his family's ranch, where he sexually assaulted and fatally shot her.
In October 2002, sitting in a county jail waiting to be taken to prison on an unrelated matter, Gonzales led authorities to her body and eventually confessed to Townsend's killing, records show.
Since Gonzales and Zoosman began corresponding in January 2021, the inmate has "never made excuses for what he'd done," Zoosman, a federal hospital chaplain and founder of L'chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty, told CNN.
Gonzales first got the notion to donate a kidney when Zoosman mentioned someone in his congregation needed a donated kidney, Zoosman told CNN.
"I just mentioned it offhand in a letter to him ... and he jumped on it," Zoosman said, adding Gonzales was "very eager" and even wrote a letter to the person who needed the kidney.
"It was something he wanted to do to make expiation for the life he had taken," Zoosman said.
Rare blood type makes Gonzales an 'excellent match'
Gonzales has "actively sought" to be evaluated for organ donation since that time, his attorneys, Thea Posel and Raoul Schonemann of the University of Texas at Austin's Capital Punishment Clinic, said in a statement last week to CNN.
The state criminal justice department this year allowed him to be evaluated, lawyers said in their letter to the governor, by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, where Gonzales was determined an "excellent candidate" for donation. However, Gonzales' rare B blood type meant he was not a match for the member of Zoosman's congregation.
"But that didn't stop Ramiro," Zoosman said. "On his own volition, he sought through his legal team to find another way to do it, to become an altruistic kidney donor."
The medical center told Gonzales' attorneys his rare blood type would make him "an excellent match for persons who have been on UTMB's waiting list for close to 10 years because of the same rare B blood type," according to the attorneys' statement. The medical center -- which declined to comment for this story, citing federal medical privacy law -- assured Gonzales' team in March the donation process could be completed within a month, the attorneys said.
In recent weeks, Gonzales' attorneys repeatedly have asked the state criminal justice department to reconsider its position on altruistic donations, Posel and Schonemann's statement said. The department has denied the requests, they noted.
It remains to be seen if the identification of two potential recipients will prompt the state criminal justice department to alter course or will impact the governor's decision-making. One of the possible recipients hopes it does, whether the precious organ goes to her or someone else in need.
Frith knew she "had to be prepared for a long wait for a rare kidney" because of her Type B blood, she wrote in her letter to Abbott shared by Gonzales' attorneys. She was shocked to learn Gonzales had a matching blood type.
"Imagine a potential recipient who may have been waiting 6 years or more for an elusive Type B kidney, feeling sicker and more hopeless with each passing day," she said. "You have the ability to save that person's life by allowing Mr. Gonzales to donate."
'He never expected it to lead to his clemency'
Gonzales had other litigation still pending before the courts: In one case, he sought to have the state criminal justice department let his spiritual adviser -- who is not Zoosman -- lay a hand on his chest, hold his hand and pray audibly at the time of his execution.
This request had previously been denied, but a federal judge in a preliminary injunction this month ruled the state may only execute Gonzales on Wednesday if it allowed this, court documents show.
But while those legal proceedings might be efforts to halt or delay Gonzales' execution, Zoosman strongly believes the inmate's attempt to become a kidney donor is not.
"Never in his correspondence with me, did he indicate that he felt that this would be a way out or a way to save his life. He never expected it to lead to his clemency," Zoosman said. In fact, per Zoosman, Gonzales didn't want to reveal publicly he was seeking to donate a kidney. He only decided to, the chaplain said, because his request was denied.
"There's been a lot of discussion in the press lately about who is pro-life and who is not pro-life," Zoosman said, a reference to the ongoing fights over abortion rights following the US Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. "And of course, that's another issue.
"But I can say this: I cannot fathom a more pro-death stance than a state that not only engages in state-sponsored murder of defenseless human beings," he added, "but one that prevents those in line for that murder from donating their organs to save others' lives."
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