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Life Inside

A Death Row Prisoner’s Parting Interview

Days before his scheduled execution in Texas, Ramiro Gonzales speaks on faith, legacy — and apologizing to the family of his victim, Bridget Townsend.

A light-skinned Hispanic man with close-cropped hair and tattoos on his arms uses the phone at the Polunsky Unit prison facility.
Ramiro Gonzales, on death row in Texas, in June 2022.
Update 08:54 p.m. 07.26.2024

Ramiro Gonzales was executed by Texas prison officials on Wednesday, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case. He was pronounced dead at 6:50 p.m. following a lethal injection of pentobarbital.

“I can’t put into words the pain I have caused y’all, the hurt, what I took away that I cannot give back,” he told the family of victim Bridget Townsend in his final statement. "I owe all of you my life and I hope one day you will forgive me.”

The family of victim Bridget Townsend did not make any public statements following the execution, but over the weekend her mother, Patricia Townsend, told USA Today that it would be a "joyful occasion."

Original story

On Wednesday evening, Texas prison officials plan to execute Ramiro Gonzales, the 41-year-old who kidnapped, raped and murdered Bridget Townsend when they were both 18.

The Marshall Project covered a dramatic turn in Gonzales’ murder case two years ago. A psychiatrist named Edward Gripon — who in 2006 had testified that he had antisocial personality disorder and would always be violent — had changed his mind. Citing Gonzales’ willingness to take responsibility for his crimes, Gripon told us, “If this man’s sentence was changed to life without parole, I don’t think he’d be a problem.”

Gripon’s about-face cast doubt on Texas death penalty laws, which uniquely focus on predicting whether people will be dangerous in the future. Shortly after our story was published, the state’s appeals court halted Gonzales’ execution because the psychiatrist had also given the jurors debunked statistics. But the court later dismissed these concerns, paving the way for a new execution date.

Gonzales’ story echoes famous spiritual transformations on death row, like that of Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed in 1998. It comes as many leading evangelical Christians are questioning the death penalty as out of step with their pro-life views. Over the years, Gonzales and his supporters have described his path from childhood sexual abuse and neglect, to drug addiction and violence, to spiritual rebirth. While on death row, he earned a certificate in Bible studies, counseled other prisoners in a faith-based program they call the “God Pod,” and (unsuccessfully) attempted to donate a kidney to a stranger. “How can I give back life? This is probably one of the closest things to doing that,” Gonzales, then 39, told us.

Given how opaque executions can be, I asked Gonzales about his preparations and what he’s learned on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. We edited the June 20, 2024 interview for length and clarity.

What was it like to receive an execution date?

There was no shock, no surprise. I was in the Skype session with the court when they ruled against me, so I knew a death warrant would come and I’d be sent to “death watch.” That’s what they call a separate area of death row for those with dates.

As I packed up my cell, I pulled out my composition book and tried to write something, but couldn’t think of anything. Eventually, I found myself writing down the words “holy ground.” I didn’t know why.

About a week later, I was moved to death watch and mopped the floors with my hand and a rag. The lights from the hallway reflected off the floor, so it looked like it was waxed. I laid out on the cot and again had this sense of God telling me, “This is holy ground because this is where you’re supposed to be.” Two days later, a volunteer pastor came in to do a worship service on death row, and said, “We’ve got a new song for you, it’s called ‘Holy Ground.’” So all of this felt like a theme that kept coming up, a sense that I was on holy ground because I had a purpose.

What did you feel was your purpose?

When I was first locked up in a county jail, in 2001, I thought, Wow. I’m finally free of the drugs and alcohol and can find a way out mentally. When I got to death row, being stigmatized as a menace to society made me want to change, to help others and myself.

Death row breeds anxiety. Each of us faces himself and has a choice of whether to thrive or deteriorate. Some guys, even those with lots of education, lose their minds — maybe due to paranoia, drugs, complacency — and so you make it a priority to be there for them. The greatest word you can learn in a place like this is ‘available.’ To help others maintain their mental capacity and build relationships with their own loved ones. Freedom isn’t a place; you find freedom internally through faith. I realized you can be just as incarcerated, on a spiritual level, outside the prison.

On death watch, how did your life change?

I’ve been on death row 18 years, and I knew if I let anything change my routine, I’d be letting myself be affected by things outside my control. I get up around 4 a.m., drink very strong coffee, listen to a set of my favorite worship songs, pray, read my Bible, do pushups or squats, and talk to the guys in nearby cells. Sometimes socializing is therapeutic: I remember one conversation where I forgot about being on death watch. When I get phone calls or visits, I talk to my family members and friends.

It sounds a little like being a monk.

I’m not shaving my head, though!

How did your family and friends react to your execution date?

I have a small group of friends outside prison who I trust will help my family members deal with the loss. I’ve tried to prepare them, but I know it’s going to hurt.

I also have friends among the officers. I have seen a shift in the mindset of the administration, away from the old punitive attitude. One woman comes every Sunday to my cell and says, “I’m here to check on my little shrimp.”

Then the other day I had two outside visits in a day. An officer in the visitation area joked that I should bring a mattress and just stay there due to all the visits, and I said, as a joke, “Well, in two weeks you won’t need to worry about that, since I’ll be gone!” She got stern and said, “Never say that again. Don’t talk that way around us.” I was surprised, because I thought everyone knew my sense of humor, but it was also validating: It showed that my relationships with these people are real.

Extreme circumstances breed a morbid sense of humor. I’ve seen it among lawyers and journalists.

I’ll say to one guy, “Hey when you die, can I get your headphones?” And someone else will chime in: “Wait, you’re going to die before him!” It gets much worse than that. But I think it’s normal for us.

You have some choices ahead of the execution: Who to invite as witnesses, and what to say in a final statement. How are you thinking about those choices?

I’ve tried to write a speech. It doesn’t work. Obviously, it will be an apology to the family of the victim, Bridget Townsend, but I want it to sound sincere, not scripted. So I pray God will give me the words, and I hope it’s sincere enough for them to at least accept the apology. I don’t know that there will be any closure for them in watching me die, but I hope it’s enough to help them begin a journey.

I’ll have my spiritual advisor Bri-anne Swan in the chamber with me, and there’s nobody else I can imagine there. We’ve been corresponding since 2014. For the witness room, I’ve picked people with an eye towards legacy — what I’ll leave behind. So for example, one of my defense lawyers coming is pretty young, and I think this will be fuel to the fire for her, strengthening her spirit rather than breaking it, so she can fight harder for other guys, to stop their executions.

The prison system has made it possible for you to seek rehabilitation in a faith-based program. How do you square that with them executing you?

I think there is a conservative, evangelical set of people who have misconstrued how the Bible talks about capital punishment. In Romans 13 there’s a passage that can be translated as, “The government does not wield the sword in vain to him who practices evil.”

But in the original Greek text, it’s in the present participle, and I see it as really talking about someone who is a constant, continual threat to society. You can interpret it as saying God wants the state to seek every alternative, to try to rehabilitate this individual, and only then can you wield that authority. But God doesn’t say, “Do it.” Because obviously, love and mercy and grace are greater. Some conservative Christians have taken it upon themselves to misconstrue these passages for political gains.

Your experience is shaped by tensions in our society: We haven’t settled on whether to punish people or rehabilitate, whether we choose cruelty or mercy.

I think ultimately the state is afraid to acknowledge the fact that we can be rehabilitated and be a contribution to society from prison — because it goes against how they prosecuted us, how they labeled us in court as menaces to society. Admitting that mistake would open up a Pandora’s box in the judicial system. I wish they’d be honest and say: “We screwed up. People can be rehabilitated.” But it’s hard to admit your mistakes, especially when politics are involved.

Will the death penalty ever disappear?

I’ve come to think that all the people working to abolish the death penalty outside the prison may not have as much influence or impact as we have inside. If you could get everyone on death row to be a graduate of something like the faith-based program, to prove they can contribute to society, then maybe we can become the vessels for the death penalty going away.

Maurice Chammah Twitter Email is a staff writer and host of the podcast “Just Say You're Sorry,” as well as the author of “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.” He writes narrative features on a range of criminal justice subjects, including the death penalty, forensics and art and music by incarcerated people.