Melissa Lucio Granted a Stay of Execution in Texas

Melissa Lucio, who was set to be executed on April 27 for the death of her 2-year old daughter Mariah, was granted a stay of execution and a new hearing on Monday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. On April 15, 2022, Lucio’s attorneys asked the court for relief, urging a review in light of new evidence pointing to Lucio’s innocence and procedural issues at her trial.

The court ordered a hearing to consider four of Lucio’s claims—that false testimony was used at her trial, that the prosecution suppressed exculpatory evidence, that she is innocent and that new scientific evidence, not available at the time of her trial, proves her innocence. Lucio’s filings included new evidence and expert testimony supporting her claim that the underlying crime was a tragic accident and that unscientific false evidence misled the jury. At the hearing, the trial court will consider whether her conviction was based on an unreliable false confession which Lucio, a victim of decades of sexual abuse and domestic violence, offered in response to aggressive, threatening and hostile questioning by investigators.

“The court’s decision paves the way for Melissa to present evidence of her innocence that should have been heard by the jury that condemned her to death 14 years ago,” said Professor Sandra Babcock, director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and one of Lucio’s attorneys. “As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, and now locked away for these past 15 years, Melissa’s voice and experiences have never been valued. The Court’s decision signals its willingness to finally hear Melissa’s side of the story. If the district court hears all the evidence of Melissa’s innocence, and the gender bias that infected the police investigation and prosecution, we are confident she will return home to her family.” 

The court did not direct a reconsideration of five other claims. There will be no review, for example, of the pattern of gender bias in the investigation and prosecution that made Lucio a suspect, even though she and her husband, Roberto Alvarez, were equally responsible for Mariah’s care. During her interrogation, Lucio was insulted and intimidated, and interrupted over 70 times, while Alvarez was treated with empathy and respect, and interrupted just once.

Two pending motions to disqualify the presiding judge, Gabriela Garcia, and Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz because two key members of Lucio’s original defense team now work for them, will be considered before the hearing can begin. Once a trial court hears evidence supporting Lucio’s claims, she can be granted a new trial or the Court of Criminal Appeals can vacate her conviction and drop all charges. 

Also, in light of the court’s stay of execution, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles declined to make a recommendation in response to the application for clemency filed on March 22 and a supplemental application filed on April 12 by Lucio’s attorneys.

Saving Lucio’s life had been the subject of an intense statewide and national campaign, spearheaded by Lucio’s family who argued that taking her life was unfair and would cause them additional trauma. Public figures, including Kim Kardashian and Amanda Knox, joined the fight, and five original jurors and an alternate juror at Lucio’s trial submitted declarations in support of halting Lucio’s execution and granting her a new trial. 

On April 12, District Attorney Saenz, who had requested that Lucio’s execution date be set, was called before a panel of Texas state representatives after a bipartisan group of 83 representatives urged reconsideration of Lucio’s case. In response to intense pressure from lawmakers, he pledged to intervene if other legal avenues failed to grant relief, though Saenz’s comments carried no legal weight. Thus far, Saenz has not issued any response to the court’s ruling.

A bipartisan group of Texas state senators—nine Republicans and 12 Democrats, representing a majority of the Texas Senate—also sent a letter on April 14 to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in support of Lucio’s clemency application.  

The court’s Monday ruling relieved the political pressure on officials, including Governor Abbott, to intervene in Lucio’s case. More importantly, the ruling gives time to explore the troubling miscarriage of justice that took place at her original trial and allows Lucio the opportunity for a full and fair hearing of all the evidence, including new and unfairly excluded evidence never been considered in court.

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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.