Advocates for the Texas mother convicted of murdering her baby daughter are expanding their efforts to have her death sentence commuted days before she is scheduled to be executed.
Melissa Lucio, 53, was convicted in 2008 of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. On Feb. 15, 2007, Mariah reportedly fell down a steep flight of outdoor stairs that led Melissa’s family’s apartment. Although Mariah didn’t appear to be injured at the time, she died two days later.
Prosecutors pointed the finger at Melissa, who was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death.
In January, a warrant was issued setting April 27 as her execution date. Although a growing chorus of advocates, politicians, and even members of the jury who convicted Melissa are calling for her execution order to be withdrawn, neither the DA’s office nor the governor’s office have responded.
“Please, please stop the execution,” an emotional John Lucio, her son, said at a virtual press conference Thursday shortly before going to visit his mother in prison.
With the day of Melissa’s scheduled execution drawing closer, John said that he has had the opportunity to spend more time with her. Although family visits are normally limited to two hours, John said Thursday that he will have four hours to spend with Melissa today and tomorrow, and six hours next Monday and Tuesday.
John and the group “Free Melissa Lucio” have called for a “national day of action” on April 23. But unless either Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz or Gov. Greg Abbott take action themselves, Melissa will be executed on Wednesday.
“I Guess I Did It.”
Two hours after Mariah died, Lucio—who was pregnant with twins at the time—was in an interrogation room, facing accusations from police who accused her of abusing and killing her daughter. According to court filings, the police used coercive interrogation tactics that preyed on Lucio’s vulnerability stemming from her history of having been physically and sexually abused.
“I guess I did it,” she eventually said, according to an Innocence Project summary of Lucio’s case.
However, Lucio’s attorneys claim that confession was not reliable.
“Melissa was subjected to a five-hour, late-night, carefully orchestrated and aggressive interrogation until, physically and emotionally exhausted, she eventually said ‘I guess I did it,'” they wrote in a February filing asking to withdraw or modify the execution date. The district attorney at the time, Armando Villalobos, presented this to the jury as a confession, but according to Lucio’s lawyers, that’s not the whole story.
“Because the trial court excluded Melissa’s proffered expert testimony, the jury would not hear that Melissa’s long history of sexual and physical abuse made her especially vulnerable to the aggressive, intimidating, and psychological interrogation tactics the male police officers deployed,” the filing said (citations omitted). “When the interrogation began, Melissa had been awake for roughly fourteen hours. She was also pregnant with twins. Interrogators provided her nothing to eat and allowed her no sleep. Some of the interrogation was recorded on three videos that were played to the jury on the first day of trial. Some interactions between the interrogators and Melissa either were not recorded, or those recordings have been suppressed.”
During the interrogation, Melissa acknowledged that she sometimes spanked her children on the behind, but she maintained that she had never abused them, the filing said.
At trial, prosecutors said that Mariah’s injuries, including the bruises on her body at the time of her death and the fact that she had suffered a broken arm, could only be the result of abuse at Melissa’s hands.
The jury also was denied evidence mitigating Lucio’s statements, according to court filings, including:
[M]uch of Ms. Lucio’s evidence of innocence and her mitigating evidence showing that a death sentence was unwarranted has never been presented to the courts. That evidence includes, but is not limited to, (a) an eyewitness account of [Mariah]’s fall down the stairs, (b) eyewitness accounts of people other than Ms. Lucio inflicting blows and rough treatment to that could have caused her bruises and other injuries, (c) forensic evidence contradicting the medical examiner’s testimony about the causes of [Mariah]’s injuries, (d) documented instances of the interrogation techniques used against Ms. Lucio producing false confessions, (e) evidence that Ms. Lucio suffers from cognitive and psychological impairments—some linked to her being a survivor of child rape and domestic abuse—that explain her false confession.
The filing adds that the jury was also never given evidence that the bruises on Mariah’s body were the result from “rough play” with her siblings. Nor did the jury see an autopsy that revealed that Mariah “showed signs of a blood coagulation disorder, which causes profuse bruising throughout the body.”
As to Mariah’s broken arm, a pediatric surgeon who reviewed the evidence said that “there is nothing about [Mariah’s] fracture that indicates that it was the result of an intentional act or abuse,” and that it was a common type of injury among toddlers who fall from standing height, according to the Innocence Project.
Notably, Villalobos—the DA who prosecuted Lucio—was convicted himself of bribery and extortion in 2014 and is currently serving a 13-year federal prison sentence. According to the Innocence Project, he pursued the death penalty for Lucio “likely because he was seeking re-election at the time and thought that such a ‘win’ would earn him votes.”
“We Should Not Rush Something That Cannot Be Undone.”
A 2020 documentary about Lucio’s case, The State of Texas vs. Melissa, raised questions about Melissa’s interrogation and conviction, and since then, voices calling for a reprieve from execution have only grown louder.
A bipartisan coalition of Texas state legislatures, including 32 Republican members of the Texas House of Representatives and eight Republican state senators, have asked the state pardon and parole board for a reprieve.
“[T]he State of Texas cannot, in good faith, execute Ms. Lucio next month,” the letter from the House of Representatives says, asking that the pardon board “pay particular attention to the new scientific evidence that has emerged since the time of Ms. Lucio’s trial showing that her daughter, Mariah, died after a tragic accident rather than an intentional capital murder.”
“In other words, Ms. Lucio was sentenced for a murder that, simply put, did not take place, and no eyewitness account exists saying otherwise,” the letter continues, adding that the evidence in Melissa’s favor gives pause to even “the strongest death penalty proponents” in the group.
“We should not rush something that cannot be undone,” the letter adds.
Five of the jurors who convicted Melissa have said that if they knew at the time of trial what they know now, they would not have reached the same conclusions.
“I was disheartened to learn that there was additional evidence that was not presented at trial,” Melissa Quintanilla, the foreperson on Lucio’s jury, wrote in a declaration. “I believe that Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and for a new jury to hear this evidence. Knowing what I know now, I don’t think she should be executed.”
In an op-ed for The Houston Chronicle, juror Johnny Galvan Jr. said that at the time of trial, he didn’t want to sentence Melissa to death, and that he was the “lone holdout” on the jury pushing for a life sentence instead. However, he said he eventually caved to pressure from his fellow jurors.
“I wish I had never done so,” Galvan wrote in the piece.
Seven judges on the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in a dissent to a 2021 en banc ruling reinstating Melissa’s conviction and sentence that the trial court wrongly excluded expert testimony that could have explained why Melissa acquiesced during the interrogation.
Representatives from the offices of Saenz and Abbott did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment.
[Images used with permission from Death Penalty Action.]
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