HOUSTON — During hours of relentless questioning, Melissa Lucio has more than 100 times denied beating her 2-year-old daughter to death.
But worn down by a life of abuse and the grief of losing her daughter Mariah, her lawyers say, the Texas woman finally acquiesced to investigators. “I guess I did,” Lucio replied when asked if she was responsible for some of Mariah’s injuries.
Her lawyers say that statement was misinterpreted by prosecutors as a murder confession – tainting the rest of the inquest into Mariah’s 2007 death, with evidence gathered solely to prove that conclusion, and helping to lead to his conviction for capital murder. They claim Mariah died after falling down the 14 steps of a steep staircase outside the family’s apartment in the South Texas town of Harlingen.
As his April 27 execution date nears, Lucio’s lawyers are hoping that new evidence, along with growing public support – including jurors who now doubt the conviction and more than half of the House representatives from Texas – will persuade the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. and Governor Greg Abbott to grant a stay of execution or commute his sentence.
“Mariah’s death was a tragedy, not a murder. … It would be an absolutely devastating message if this execution continues. It would send the message that innocence doesn’t matter,” said Vanessa Potkin, one of Lucio’s attorneys who is part of the Innocence Project.
Lucio’s attorneys say jurors never heard any forensic evidence that would have explained that Mariah’s various injuries were in fact caused by a fall days earlier. They also say that Lucio was not allowed to present evidence questioning the validity of her confession.
The Texas Attorney General’s office is maintaining evidence showing Mariah suffered the “absolute worst” case of child abuse her ER doctor had seen in 30 years.
“Lucio still offers no reliable and supportive evidence for his acquittal,” the office wrote in court documents last month.
The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Lucio, declined to comment.
Lucio, 53, would be the first Latina executed by Texas and the first woman since 2014. Only 17 women have been executed in the United States since the Supreme Court lifted its death penalty ban in 1976, the last in January 2021.
In their clemency petition, Lucio’s lawyers say that although she used drugs, which caused her to temporarily lose custody of her children, she was a loving mother who worked to stay drug-free and provide for the needs of his family. Lucio has 14 children and was pregnant with the two youngest when Mariah died.
Lucio and his children struggled with poverty. At times they were homeless and dependent on food banks for meals, according to the petition. Child protective services were present in the family’s life, but there was never an accusation of abuse by any of her children, Potkin said.
Lucio had been sexually abused on several occasions, starting when he was 6 years old, and had been physically and emotionally abused by two husbands. Her lawyers say this lifelong trauma made her susceptible to making a false confession.
In the 2020 documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” Lucio said investigators kept pushing her to say she hurt Mariah.
“I wasn’t going to admit to causing his death because I wasn’t responsible,” Lucio said.
His lawyers say Lucio’s sentence was disproportionate to what her husband and Mariah’s father, Robert Alvarez, received. He was sentenced to four years in prison for injuring a child by omission, even though he was also responsible for Mariah’s care, Lucio’s lawyers claim.
In 2019, a three-judge panel of the 5th United States Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Lucio’s conviction, ruling that she was deprived of “her constitutional right to present a meaningful defense”. However, the full court in 2021 said the conviction should be upheld on procedural grounds, “despite the difficult issue of excluding testimony that might have cast doubt on the credibility of Lucio’s confession”.
Three jurors and an alternate in Lucio’s trial signed affidavits expressing doubts about his conviction.
“She wasn’t mean. She was just struggling. … If we had heard the defense passionately defending her in some way, we might have made a different decision,” juror Johnny Galvan wrote in an affidavit.
In a letter last month to the Board of Pardons and Parole and Abbott, 83 members of the Texas House said executing Lucio would be “a miscarriage of justice.”
“As a conservative Republican myself, who has long been a proponent of the death penalty in the most heinous of cases…I have never seen a more disturbing case than the case of Melissa Lucio,” the rep said. State Jeff Leach, who signed the letter.
Abbott can grant a one-time reprieve of 30 days. He can grant clemency if the majority of the parole board recommends it.
The council plans to vote on Lucio’s clemency petition two days before the scheduled execution, Rachel Alderete, the council’s director of support operations, said in an email. A spokeswoman for Abbott’s office did not return an email seeking comment.
Abbott has only granted clemency to one death row inmate, Thomas Whitaker, since taking office in 2015. Whitaker was found guilty of masterminding the fatal shooting of his mother and brother. His father, who survived, led efforts to save Whitaker, saying he would be victimized again if his son was executed.
Lucio’s supporters said her plea for clemency was similar in that her family would be re-traumatized if she were executed.
“Please allow us to come to terms with Mariah’s death and remember her without further pain, anguish and grief. Please spare our mother’s life,” Lucio’s children wrote in a statement. letter to Abbott and council.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70