Bipartisan Group Urges Reconsideration of Melissa Lucio’s Death Sentence

New evidence and an in-depth investigation of Lucio’s interrogation reveal lack of sufficient proof—but she is still set to be executed on Wednesday, April 27.

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Melissa Lucio’s attorneys are fighting to overturn her conviction and set aside her execution date based on her continued innocence claims and other procedural issues. (Courtesy of the Lucio team via the Innocence Project)

A bipartisan group of Texas state lawmakers has asked authorities to reconsider the scheduled April 27 execution of Melissa Lucio, who was convicted of murder in 2008 for the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. They join hundreds of other Texans—including 225 anti-domestic violence groups, 130 faith leaders and 30 Latino organizations—in urging the Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Abbott to grant Lucio a reprieve. These appeals are based, in part, on new information and expert testimony calling into doubt Lucio’s guilt included in the clemency application recently filed by her lawyers.

The clemency application challenges the validity of the “confession” elicited under duress from Lucio on the night Mariah died, two days after she fell down a flight of stairs. Affidavits from internationally recognized experts on false confessions have concluded that Lucio’s “confession” was essentially a regurgitation of information suggested by male investigators during her five-hour interrogation. In fact, Lucio maintained her innocence 86 times verbally and 35 times non-verbally over the course of five hours of harsh questioning. Survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, like Lucio, are highly susceptible to making a false confession due to past trauma, and studies indicate that women are more vulnerable to making false confessions than men.

Seven forensic experts, including a pediatric forensic pathologist, support the conclusion that Mariah’s death could have been caused by medical complications from her fall, rather than physical abuse.

The conclusions of the medical examiner who determined Mariah could only have died from child abuse are also called into question by the clemency application. At Lucio’s trial, the medical examiner told the jury that child abuse was the only possible explanation for Mariah’s injuries—yet statements from seven forensic experts, including a pediatric forensic pathologist, support the conclusion that Mariah’s death could have been caused by medical complications from her fall, rather than physical abuse. Child Protective Services had followed the family for years but had never documented any physical abuse and Lucio’s children told the police that no physical abuse occurred.  

The trial court did not allow Lucio’s original defense team to present evidence to explain her statements, and the defense never presented an alternate theory for Mariah’s death. Four jurors and an alternate juror submitted statements in support of Lucio’s clemency application, alleging that the presentation of such evidence would have had a material impact on deliberations.

The clemency application also outlines the troubling gendered double standards in Lucio’s case. Both Robert Alvarez, Mariah’s father, and Lucio were at home and equal caretakers when they called for an ambulance, yet investigators never questioned Alvarez’s explanations regarding Mariah’s injuries. In contrast, investigators were hostile to and skeptical of Lucio, treating her as a suspect immediately. Ultimately, Alvarez was sentenced only to four years for causing injury to a child by omission for failing to seek medical care while Lucio was sentenced to capital murder.

Both Robert Alvarez, Mariah’s father, and Lucio were at home and equal caretakers when they called for an ambulance—yet investigators never questioned Alvarez’s explanations regarding Mariah’s injuries.

“Police and prosecutors treated Robert and Melissa differently from start to finish,” said Sandra Babcock, director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and one of Lucio’s attorneys. “Police expressed empathy to Robert, saying they were sorry for the loss of his daughter. They apologized for asking difficult questions. They called him ‘Sir.’ They gave him a cigarette. They heard him out.

“By contrast, they treated Melissa like a criminal,” Babcock continued, “even though she had no record of violence or abuse. They badgered her repeatedly, interrupting her and insisting she was guilty. The differential treatment of Robert and Melissa can only be attributable to gender bias. At the time of the police interrogation, no evidence indicated that either parent was responsible for Mariah’s death—and we now know that Mariah’s death was an accident. Yet the police went after Melissa because they concluded she was not behaving as a grieving mother should.”

Lucio’s case is the subject of a 2020 Hulu documentary, The State of Texas vs. Melissa, which supports her defense team’s claims of innocence and presents evidence of this abuse. (The State of Texas vs Melissa via Hulu /  Sabrina Van Tassel)

The clemency petition requests that the Board of Pardons and Paroles exercise its broad discretion by commuting Lucio’s sentence to life in prison or delaying her execution for 120 days as she seeks a new trial. Should the Board make a recommendation, it will be sent to Governor Abbott for approval—or the governor can delay the execution by 30 days unilaterally.

At a press briefing last month, Texas lawmakers from both parties explained that leniency is warranted due to unfairness in the investigation and prosecution of Lucio. The lawmakers also urged consideration of credible new evidence of Lucio’s innocence to avoid unjustly meting out what Rep. Lacey Hull, a freshman Republican state senator, called “the ultimate punishment.”

But if neither the Board of Pardons and Paroles nor Governor Abbott heeds these calls, Lucio—who likely did not commit any crime at all—will receive the death penalty.

Take Action

Add your name to the petition to stop Melissa Lucio’s execution here.

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About

Michelle Onello is a human rights lawyer and senior counsel at the Global Justice Center, a nonprofit advocating for gender equality and reproductive rights in international law, and a signatory of the letter urging President Biden to repeal the Helms Amendment.