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2015-04-30

Gonzales' latest appeal denied

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Ramiro Felix Gonzales



A federal appeals court has denied the latest in a string of challenges from a man who currently waits on Texas' death row for the murder of an 18-year-old Bandera County woman.
On Friday, April 10, judges on the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Antonio denied Ramiro Felix Gonzales' claims of procedural errors in his original trial in Medina County for the shooting death of Bridget Townsend.
The court's decision nudges Gonzalez a step closer to his execution. He is currently being held in the Walls Unit at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville.
Gruesome backstory
According to court documents, on Jan. 15, 2001, Gonzales, then 18, went to the home of his drug supplier in Wharton's Dock to steal cocaine - fully aware that only Townsend, his supplier's girlfriend, was at the residence. Additionally, Gonzales and Townsend were acquainted. They had been classmates in middle school before Gonzales dropped out in the eighth grade.
Nevertheless, according to court documents, Gonzales pushed Townsend down, dragged her into a bedroom, tying her hands and feet with nylon rope from a closet. He also stole between $150 and $500 in cash. After carrying the still-bound Townsend to his pickup truck, Gonzales drove to a large ranch in Medina County off FM 1077 in northern Medina County, where he lived; retrieved a high-powered .243-caliber deer rifle equipped with a scope; and forced the girl to walk into the deserted brush.
When Gonzales loaded the rifle, Townsend began begging for her life. In response to her offer of sex in exchange for her life, Gonzales unloaded the rifle, took her back to the truck where he raped her. After Townsend redressed, he walked her back into the brush and shot her, leaving her body where it fell.
Returning to his grandparents' house, Gonzales removed the empty shell casing from the rifle and threw the casing away. He returned the rifle to his grandfather's ranch truck from which he had originally retrieved it and proceeded to interact with his family as though nothing had happened.
Given death penalty
However, during the September 2006 trial, it was revealed that Gonzales had repeatedly returned to the scene of Townsend's murder. Court records also stated that as a youth, Gonzales "on numerous occasions shot animals and then watched their bodies decay over time."
These facts were never disputed during the trial. At that time, Gonzales' was the first death penalty case held in Medina County in more than two decades.
Ultimately, Gonzales was convicted of intentionally causing Townsend's death by shooting her with a firearm during the course of committing or attempting to commit aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, or robbery. The jury took just a little over 34 minutes to find him guilty of capital murder and approximately three hours to sentence him to death.
Previously, Gonzales had been found guilty in 2002 of kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault with deadly weapon of another Bandera County woman. For those crimes, he was sentenced to serve two life sentences.
Confessed to murder
While in the Bandera County Jail waiting to be transported to prison, Gonzales told then-Sheriff James MacMillan that he had information about Townsend, who had been reported missing almost two years earlier.
Accompanied by Gonzales and a jail administrator, MacMillan drove to the ranch where Gonzales and his family lived, eventually walking to a remote cedar-covered hillside where Gonzales indicated they would find Townsend's remains. At the site, the sheriff and the jail administrator discovered a human skull and other bones that had been scattered by wildlife, as well as jewelry that had been previously described by Gonzales. Townsend's body was discovered Oct. 7, 2002. She was positively identified using dental records.
During Gonzales' murder trial, then-Texas Ranger Skylor Hearn testified that Gonzales' final account of the murder was consistent with evidence discovered during a subsequent investigation. Additionally, Gonzales had given law enforcement officers an audio-taped and transcribed statement, which he signed. Hearn read the statement at the trial and the audiotape was played as well.
In an earlier pre-trial hearing, 38th Judicial District Judge Antonio Cantu had denied motions to suppress Gonzales' written confessions.
The case was tried in Medina County because that was where Townsend's remains had been found - although the decision was rife with controversy at the time.
Mitigating
circumstances?
During the trial, Gonzales' defense attorneys blamed their client's behavior on childhood neglect, drugs and sexual abuse. According to court records, his mother had used drugs during her pregnancy then abandoned him at birth, leaving him to be raised primarily by his grandmother. Additionally, as a child, Gonzales had been sexually abused by a male relative and was using alcohol and drugs by the time he was 12.
Speaking after the murder trial, Gonzales' second victim, who had been taken to the same ranch in Medina County, told the court she believed Gonzales would also have murdered her had she not been able to escape from a cabin where she, too, had been bound and imprisoned.
Most recent challenge
During Gonzales' most recent appeal, his attorneys challenged testimony from a forensic psychiatrist who had testified that there was a serious risk that Gonzales would continue to commit acts of violence in the prison setting.
However, at the time, the psychiatrist had also acknowledged that predictions of future dangerousness were "highly controversial" and that the American Psychiatric Association had taken the position that such predictions are unscientific and unreliable.
Additionally, Gonzales' court-appointed defense attorneys charged "ineffective assistance of counsel" during the original trial because his attorney failed to present evidence that Gonzales might have suffered from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
According to the appellate court's finding: "Defense council presented substantial evidence at trial that Gonzales's mother abused alcohol, marijuana and inhalants while pregnant with Gonzales. There is insufficient persuasive evidence that Gonzales actually suffers from FASD."
To Gonzales' claim that his trial counsel failed to secure an abuse expert, the court countered that Dr. Daneen Milam, a neuropsychologist and sex offender treatment provider, had testified for the defense on the psychological consequences of the neglect, abuse and drug use on Gonzales. "Beyond Dr. Milam's extensive testimony, additional testimony by an abuse expert would most likely have been cumulative, and Gonzales does not show otherwise," the court stated.
For these reasons and more, the appellate court denied Gonzales' most recent appeal.
A local attorney opined that many more appeals would be filed with higher courts. One of Gonzales' previous appeals went all the way to the United States Supreme Court before being denied. "He's doing this simply to avoid the death penalty and to prolong the process," the attorney said.