The death-row inmate and his spiritual adviser, Rev. Bri-anne Swan, started out as pen pals
By David Wilson, Broadview, December 9, 2022
CONTENT WARNING: This article contains descriptions of murder, sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Please take care when reading.
A mid-July afternoon last summer found Rev. Bri-anne Swan navigating the ribbon of asphalt that connects the Texas prison towns of Livingston and Huntsville, under a fierce sun that would push the thermometer to 40 C.
Swan had spent the earlier part of the sweltering day in Livingston, meeting with a man on death row and members of his family. His name was Ramiro Félix Gonzales. He was the same age as Swan, 39, and had spent the past 16 years in solitary confinement after pleading guilty to kidnapping, raping and murdering Bridget Townsend, an 18-year-old woman from Bandera County, Texas, in 2001, when he was also 18. A jury sentenced him to death by lethal injection in 2006, but a series of appeals and other legal actions had repeatedly delayed his execution date.
But now it was imminent. In 48 hours, Gonzales would be loaded into a Texas Department of Criminal Justice vehicle and driven 70 kilometres to the state prison in Huntsville, where Texas sends condemned prisoners to die. Swan, who lives in Toronto with her husband and two sons, is a longtime opponent of capital punishment. She chanced upon Gonzales in 2014 through a website where death-row prisoners advertise for pen pals. In the years that followed, Swan developed a close long-distance friendship with him.
While she abhorred Gonzales’s crime, she also abhorred the idea that the state would kill him as punishment. She had come to believe that Gonzales had undergone a profoundly positive transformation in the years since he murdered Bridget Townsend.
In 2021, Swan was commissioned as a minister in The United Church of Canada, and her relationship with Gonzales became professional as well as personal, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gives condemned prisoners the right to choose a spiritual adviser to accompany them as their sentences are carried out. It was in that role that Swan braved the aggravations of pandemic air travel and flew to Texas before Gonzales’s execution, scheduled for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13.
While visiting with Gonzales on July 11, Swan and the condemned man discussed how she would serve communion in his holding cell before his execution. During the visit, she also received word that officials in the Texas criminal justice department wanted to meet with her on the morning of the execution. She took it as a sign that the execution would go ahead as planned. Further confirmation came later, as she set out to drive back to Huntsville, when she learned that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had denied Gonzales’s request for clemency.
Behind the wheel, Swan mentally composed the prayer she would offer as Gonzales breathed his last. She thought about his family, and she thought about Bridget Townsend and her family. She thought about what she would wear to the execution — her clerical collar, for sure. As the person responsible for Gonzales’s remains, she thought about what to do with his ashes when it was all over.
Ramiro Gonzales on death row in Texas in June 2022, a month before his scheduled execution on July 13. He asked his friend Rev. Bri-anne Swan to serve him communion before his death. (Photo by Rafael Roy, courtesy of The Marshall Project)
“It was a lonely drive,” she later said. “I stopped for gas, and after I filled up, I got back in my car and actually sat there…thinking about the number of times I’ve driven that route back and forth between Livingston and Huntsville, and how that’s the same drive Ramiro would be taking. And I thought, at least it’s a pretty drive. I hope he can see out the window.”
Swan was almost back at her motel in Huntsville when her phone rang. She could see it was one of Gonzales’s lawyers, who advised her to pull over. The connection was bad, and she couldn’t make out what the lawyer was saying — except for one word. But that single word pulsed with ethical, emotional and, for Swan, spiritual consequence. “I was shaking. Not just my hands but my whole body — that feeling when you’re violently shivering but it’s not because you’re cold.” She remained on the side of the road until it felt safe to drive again.