A bittersweet victory in Texas

February 3, 2010

Gabriel Gonzalez has been saved from the Texas death penalty system, but the fight won't end until he's free, say Karen Domínguez Burke and Ragina Johnson.

GABRIEL GONZALEZ will never be killed by the state of Texas. In a surprise court decision, the Texas death row prisoner received a new sentence of life in prison, with the possibility of parole.

Gabriel was convicted in the shooting death of Louella Hilton during a pawn-shop robbery gone wrong in 1994. Gabriel received the death sentence in 1997, though no evidence links him to the crime. Since then, Gabriel was housed in the Polunsky Unit, North America's most restrictive death row.

Gabriel was granted a re-sentencing hearing four years ago, and his case has been in limbo ever since. He had no death sentence weighing on him, but he still endured the conditions of death row. As he wrote after his arrival on death row:

I'm imprisoned in a 6-by-9-foot corner of this slaughterhouse, forced to witness the torturous prelude to the execution of the people around me. I'm here, sentenced to die, but that isn't as simplistic as it may sound. The thought of death, the constant flow of death, living alone in this monotonous lifestyle of death row, combines to make a daily dose of lethal, mental and emotional deterioration.

Gabriel Gonzalez
Gabriel Gonzalez

Last October, Gabriel was moved to San Antonio to await his hearing. After many more delays, his family was told on January 29 that the hearing would be held the afternoon of February 1. On such short notice, family members and friends found it almost impossible to attend and show needed support.

This is just one more way that Texas tries to keep prisoners, family members and activists from believing they can win. The good news is: Texas didn't succeed this time.

The judge ruled that the court originally failed to investigate mitigating evidence, so she threw out the death penalty. Gabriel got a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

But he will have to serve at least 25 more years in prison before he gets the chance to sit in front of a parole board. This is a travesty! Gabriel is an innocent man, and he has already been in prison since 1997.

Now, he has only one year to appeal for a new trial. The cost of this appeal is prohibitive. Gabriel must raise tens of thousands of dollars to be able to afford a lawyer.

IT'S EASY to look at Gabriel's case and only see how legal procedure saved his life. But without activists fighting against the death penalty in Texas for over 10 years, Gabriel's case would not have gone the way it did.

Since Kenneth Foster Jr. was saved from his would-be lynchers in 2007, Texas judges have faced many embarrassments over death penalty cases. Judge Sharon "Killer" Keller was put on trial for slamming the doors in the face of lawyers filing a last-minute appeal for Michael Wayne Richard. New evidence has come to light that exonerates Cameron Todd Willingham, a man put to death in 2004. In another landmark victory, all charges were dismissed against Michel Scott and Robert Springsteen, when new DNA evidence linked someone else to the infamous Yogurt Shop Murders in Austin, Texas.

Cracks are forming in the facade that holds the Texas injustice system together. Activists have been working hard at widening these cracks and exposing the rotten underbelly of the unjust, racist death machine beneath them.

Gabriel Gonzalez is at the forefront of that fight. He is a founding member of the DRIVE Death Row Inner-communalist Vanguard Engagement) Movement. Gabriel and his comrades--Kenneth Foster, Rob Will and Reginald Blanton, an innocent man murdered by the state last October--formed their group in order to coordinate protests of their conditions and the death penalty as a whole.

DRIVE has organized nonviolent direct-action protests to fight for medical care, better food and better treatment of prisoners, especially those with disabilities, and to protest the lynching of their fellow inmates. Reginald, in fact, refused to participate in his own murder on October 27, 2009.

Gabriel Gonzalez deserves to be free. The state of Texas has already stolen 13 years of his life for a crime he didn't commit.

For those of us on the outside fighting the system of legal lynching, Gabriel's strength and commitment to this movement is an inspiration. We are ecstatic that the state won't murder our friend! We share in the joy of his family, who may now have the opportunity to hug him after long years of visits behind glass.

But the fight is not over. Gabriel deserves his freedom.

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