Never Convicted but Never Exonerated, Either
Issues facing exonerees and wrongfully convicted individuals have been recurring topics in CLN and PLN. Still, there’s another category of arguably similarly situated citizens that must also be paid some attention: Those who were wrongfully accused of crimes they did not commit.
Even though a great many of these innocents were cleared of culpability and released before trial and others prior to being indicted, consider those whose lives were temporarily disrupted. Some of these victimized citizens’ lives would be all but destroyed just by their accusation and arrest.
Brandon Gonzales, 23, was attending a homecoming party in October 2019 at a Greenville, Texas, event hall. He had left the event and was sitting in a car outside when gunfire erupted from within the venue. He was told by fleeing partygoers that someone was inside shooting a firearm. Two partiers were killed, and many others wounded. Gonzales left the area and went home, thankful that neither he nor any of his friends had been among the dead or wounded, resuming his former life ... for a short while.
Gonzales would fall victim to an all-too-real (and common) example of an erroneous eyewitness identification. Three days after leaving that party, he found himself under arrest at his job by a phalanx of Hunt County sheriff’s deputies. With more than one death at that party, capital murder was the charge in the state that leads the nation in death penalties assessed and executions carried out. Gonzales had good reason to worry about his future.
With a hurriedly assessed $1 million bond, the former automobile dealership employee could never in his wildest dreams have hoped to make, Gonzales spent nine days in jail, reading his Bible, praying for deliverance, and writing in his journal. Apparently his prayers would be granted.
The investigators looking to actually solve the case rather than just obtain a conviction had cleared him of any involvement, despite a flawed eyewitness statement.
Released from jail, Gonzales found himself facing an entirely new raft of problems. The New York Times had run the story of his capital murder arrest, even to the point of printing his mugshot. His story and booking photograph landed on the web. Gonzales soon found himself to be the object of a great deal of unwanted, unnecessary, and unhelpful attention. When he saw a bystander filming him at a local department store, he moved thousands of miles away to live with relatives in Florida, seeking a fresh start.
Even after arriving in Florida, he remained haunted by his false arrest ordeal. After a Google search where his arrest, charge, and mugshot remain, employment door after employment door slammed firmly shut. One prospective employer recently suggested that Gonzales let some more time elapse before trying to find a job.
A bad eyewitness accusation and the cops’ rush to arrest are not an isolated or even rare occurrence. This is demonstrated by the recent release of a movie about Richard Jewell, a former security guard who found a bomb at the 1996 Olympic Games. He saved many lives yet wound up being falsely accused of planting the bomb himself. Because of that false accusation, Jewell’s life was effectively destroyed due to the false accusation against him.
Gonzales was also vilified. “This really, it ruined my life,” he told The Dallas Morning News. “Everything was going great. I got up to go to work every morning. I provided for my kids. Now it’s like, even though I was set free — they finally found out I was innocent — it’s still there.”
Gonzales credits friends, family, and lawyers for sticking with him. Exculpatory evidence and a contradictory timeline given by an unnamed witness bolstered his innocence. Gonzales, it was revealed, was on a FaceTime call with his girlfriend while the shooting was going on. Others saw him sitting in his vehicle outside the party site.
Who killed Byron Craven Jr. and Kevin Berry, and injured six others, remains a mystery. Who devastated Gonzales’ life isn’t.