Texas takes pride in its perception of being a God-fearing state. It also takes pride in its law-and-order image, sporting bona fides as the State with the most executions since 1976, when the nation’s moratorium on the death penalty came to an end.

 

As of December 2023, 180 inmates were on death row at the Alan B. Polunsky Unit, a prison located in West Livingston, Polk County. Since the death row opened in 1999, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice created a Faith-Based Program whose purpose “is based on the belief that individuals, no matter their past, can change if given the right tools and opportunity to do so.”

 

Participants in this religious training program live in a special housing unit separate from death row. They must meet specific conduct criteria that allows them to gain admittance into the Faith-Based Program and secure an assignment to the special housing unit. While in the program, they must attend 30 hours of self-help classes designed to correct character and behavioral flaws such as substance abuse issues, acceptance of responsibility, and the purpose of religious training. The inmates gain skills in teaching classes, mentoring each other, and mediating conflicts that may arise on death row.

 

In a nutshell, these faith-based inmates become God-fearing individuals who have religiously reformed their lives.

 

But what happens when the State decides it’s time to execute these reformed individuals?

 

Last fall, the State, through its court systems, set execution dates for three of these Faith-Based Program inmates: Will Speer, David Renteria, and Brent Brewer. Each inmate had been housed on death row for more than twenty years. During that time, they had become model inmates, and by Texas prison system standards, each had been thoroughly rehabilitated, capable of spending the rest of their lives in the State’s prison system in a peaceful, law-abiding manner.

 

An inevitable question arises: what does the State do when its demand for revenge meets the religious mandate of mercy?

 

Texas chose revenge. It executed both Brewer and Renteria in November 2023 after their pleas for mercy, supported by many in the State’s faith-based communities, were rejected by the State’s pardon board and Gov. Greg Abbott. Speer was granted a last-minute stay execution by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

 

Ramiro Gonzales, also a participant in the Faith-Based Program, sought mercy on June 26, 2024, from the State of Texas. Like Brewer and Renteria, he did not get it.

 

 Weeks before his scheduled execution, Gonzales’ attorneys filed an application for clemency with the State’s pardon board. Thea Posel, one of the attorneys, told the media at the time: “the role of executive clemency is, supposedly, to prevent miscarriages of justice that might yet occur due to the fallibility of our criminal legal system. On a basic level, it is an opportunity for those in power to grant mercy and recognize not only grave injustices but also the power of rehabilitation and the human capacity for change.”

 

Ramiro Gonzales did some bad things in his brief life in free society. At age 20, the Bandera County native was convicted of raping and kidnapping a local real estate agent. He was given two life sentences in 2003 for those crimes. As he was about to be transported from the county jail to the state prison system that year, he confessed to the local sheriff that two years earlier, in January 2001, he had kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered an 18-year-old teenager named Bridget Townsend—reportedly the girlfriend of a local drug dealer from whom Gonzales had been purchasing drugs.

 

Gonzales was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in the Townsend murder case in 2006. There was no question about his guilt in the case. He not only confessed but led authorities to Townsend’s remains, where he had killed her in an isolated wooded section of his grandparents’ property.

 

Gonzales had the distinction of being one of the first inmates accepted into the  Faith-Based Program following its launch in December 2021. He had lived an exemplary life on death row before 2021 and that allowed him to gain acceptance into the religious program—and once in the program, he excelled in trying to fulfill its mission.

 

In a June 21, 2024 article, Posel told the Texas Observer that Gonzales’ clemency efforts were intended to show not only why he deserved to live but also what he could have done by maintaining his ministry on death row.

 

“In the free world, ministers and faith leaders are viewed as pillars of the community,” Posel told the Observer. “In the same way, Ramiro is a leader in prison society. He is deserving of mercy for numerous reasons, but faith is inextricably intertwined with all of them, as it is an essential part of who he is and how he has attempted to atone for his sins and the pain he has caused.”

 

Texas, through its clemency process, rejected all the reasons why he should have been given mercy. The State executed him, as it did Brewer and Renteria. And that’s what happens when the State’s demand for revenge meets the religious obligation for mercy. There is no mercy for the condemned, not in the God-fearing, Christian-loving state of Texas.