(CNN) — A Texas death row inmate has asked the governor for a 30-day delay ahead of his scheduled Wednesday execution so he can 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.
Attorneys for Ramiro Gonzales, 39, who was sentenced to death for the 2001 murder of Bridget Townsend, asked for a reprieve in a June 29 letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, writing in part that Gonzales’ request to donate an organ to a stranger was “in keeping with his efforts to atone for his crimes.”
But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which let Gonzales get evaluated for the organ donation, has objected to the efforts because of his impending execution date, his lawyers wrote.
Gonzales indeed asked to make an organ donation before his execution but was deemed ineligible under the department’s health care policy, a department spokesperson confirmed July 3 to CNN.
“He still wants to save a life,” Cantor Michael Zoosman, an ordained Jewish clergyman whose correspondence with Gonzales first catalyzed the inmate’s desire to donate a kidney, told CNN. “And Texas is denying him that.”
CNN has reached out to the governor’s office for comment.
Gonzales is slated to be put to death Wednesday for his 2006 conviction 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 at his home congregation in Maryland 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 issued to CNN last week.
Earlier this year, the state criminal justice department allowed him to be evaluated, lawyers said in their letter to the governor, by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, where it was determined Gonzales was a “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,” that is, to donate his kidney without a known or intended recipient.
But, according to Gonzales’ attorneys, the Texas criminal justice department informed them in May it 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, the lawyers’ statement said.
However, the medical center — which declined to comment for this story, citing federal medical privacy law — 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 hospital 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.
‘He never expected it to lead to his clemency’
Gonzales’ attorneys have 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.
The board declined to comment to CNN, though a spokesperson noted members vote on clemency two days before a scheduled execution, according to its policy.
Gonzales also has other litigation still pending before the courts that might delay his execution: 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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