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Texas Observer
Texas Observer
Stephen Cooper

Texas Bloodlust Usurps Prosecutorial Discretion

In a civilized Texas, the death penalty would be abolished. A vestige of slavery, the unjust consequences of capital punishment infects the legal system like cancerous tumors.

The vindictive, morally bankrupt decision to extinguish life in the name of “justice” will someday—I’m sure of it—be stripped from the state’s criminal code, taken from the hands of fallible mortals, where it never should have been.

On October 3, the Texas parole board unanimously denied John Ramirez’s request for clemency. (Credit: U.S. Marine Corps)

Until then, Texas law provides elected district attorneys—the prosecutorial authority in the jurisdiction where a capital crime occurs—with the power and the discretion, acting on behalf of the people who elected them, to decide whether or not to seek the death penalty.

This time-tested pillar of state criminal procedure has, for centuries, provided elected district attorneys with the latitude to pursue or forgo the death penalty for a particular defendant in the name of the people. On October 5, when John Ramirez is scheduled to be executed, if in fact he’s executed, that will be the day Texas bloodlust usurps this beneficent feature of representative democracy—crashing it and bringing it crumbling down.

And why? Because of an office mix-up, a miscommunication, a snafu—call it what you will, ultimately it was a mistake—a boneheaded bureaucratic blunder birthing the most immediate threat to John Ramirez’s right to exist.

You see, Mark Gonzalez, the elected district attorney of Nueces County who ran for office on a progressive platform promising his constituents criminal justice reform, doesn’t want Ramirez—a former marine sentenced to death for crimes committed as a mentally ill twenty-year old—to be executed.

Asking Judge Bobby Galvan for Ramirez’s death warrant to be withdrawn, Gonzalez was candid about why his office had mistakenly moved to schedule an execution date in the first place, explaining: “The Assistant District Attorney who most recently moved for an execution date in this case was not aware of my desire in this matter and did not consult me prior to moving for an execution date.” 

Significantly, he continued: “The undersigned District Attorney for Nueces County has the firm belief that the death penalty is unethical and should not be imposed on Mr. Ramirez or any other person while the undersigned occupies the office in question.”

Cutting to the heart of it, Gonzalez told the judge, “The main issues in this motion, your honor, are that the only legitimate voice for the state of Texas would be my office.” 

More mind-boggling than the district attorney’s office’s bungle—the admitted erroneous paper-filing catalyst that generated Ramirez’s execution date—is the contemptible and curmudgeonly conduct of several other elected officials in Texas’ blighted, way-too-resistant-to-change “justice” system. These repeat players are blocking Gonzalez’s humble, human, and, I would submit, honorable—albeit too late-and-ultimately unsuccessful—attempt to remedy his office’s execution date-inducing debacle. Gonzalez is doing exactly what the people of Nueces County elected him to do by implementing progressive criminal justice reform policy he thinks is right. 

“[The execution date] got set by mistake, and I did what I could to let the judge know where we stood,” Gonzalez told the Texas Tribune.

“The main issues in this motion, your honor, are that the only legitimate voice for the state of Texas would be my office.”

During a Facebook Live presentation in April, Gonzalez said that although he agrees with the use of deadly force in self-defense, “I don’t think that the government should have that power to put people to death.”

Gonzalez’s principled, reform-minded decision to try to spare Ramirez is a decision the electorate of Nueces County entrusted him to make. That even more dramatically and profoundly, Gonzalez chose Ramirez’s case to announce that the Nueces County D.A.’s office would not be used to seek the death penalty again—at least not while Gonzalez remains D.A.—is, again, a principled criminal justice policy decision the voters of Nueces County entrusted Gonzalez to make. It’s a decision that shows standards of decency in this country can, and in fact do, evolve, even in Texas.

Nevertheless, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office opposed Gonzalez’s motion and, encouraged by this opposition and that of several understandably emotional members of the victim’s family, Judge Galvan denied Gonzalez’s motion to withdraw the erroneously requested death warrant on June 21, refusing to vacate Ramirez’s execution date. Just recently, on September 21, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals let Galvan’s ruling stand, ensuring—barring a miracle, including a massive outpouring of public, political, and celebrity support—Ramirez will be executed.  

Earlier this year, Ramirez “won” one of his appeals in the Supreme Court of the United States objecting to Texas’ refusal to allow his pastor to pray over him and to lay hands on him as he’s being executed.    

To you, the people of Texas, I’m urging a way you, too, can “win” in this otherwise hellish and unwinnable situation for all involved but, in a bigger, more meaningful way, in your heart and in your conscience: Pray and appeal, too, beginning now, before it’s too late, and not just to a higher power. You must appeal to any public official in the state with power. Tell them they need to immediately stop John Ramirez’s execution in keeping with the will of the people of Nueces County as expressed by its duly elected district attorney.

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