Melissa Lucio Innocence Case Featured in Washington Post
The Washington Post: Her execution date looming, a mother maintains innocence in 2-year-old daughter’s death
By: Marisa Iati
February 10, 2022
The family was almost free of the steep, decrepit stairs leading to their South Texas apartment when they destroyed Melissa Lucio’s life, her attorneys say.
Lucio and her husband were moving out of their second-story unit in February 2007 when, her lawyers claim, their 2-year-old daughter, Mariah, fell down the staircase. Although she seemed mostly fine, she was found dead two days later — a result of injuries from her fall, the attorneys say.
Prosecutors put forth a different theory: Lucio had intentionally and knowingly killed Mariah by abusing her, they said at trial in Cameron County. Lucio was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2008.
Now facing an April 27 execution date, Lucio is making a last-ditch attempt to save her life. In a court motion filed Tuesday, her attorneys argue that she was denied a fair trial and that there is “ample reason to believe” she was wrongfully convicted.
“There is just too much doubt,” Vanessa Potkin, an attorney for Lucio and director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, said Thursday. “We cannot move forward in this case and risk executing an innocent woman.”
Lucio’s case has wound through several layers of the court system, with no relief. A state appeals court affirmed the verdict. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit concluded that Lucio was denied her right to fully defend herself but said procedural rules barred it from overturning her conviction. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
If Texas puts Lucio to death, she will become only the sixth woman to be executed in the United States in the past decade. She is also the only Latina woman sentenced to death in Texas’s history. In 2020, her case became the subject of a documentary titled “The State of Texas vs. Melissa.”
The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the office of Gov. Greg Abbott (R) did not respond to questions Thursday about whether they would intervene in Lucio’s case.
Key to Lucio’s claim of innocence is a five-hour police interrogation the night Mariah died. Pressured repeatedly to admit to harming her daughter, and deprived of food and sleep, Lucio eventually said, “I guess I did it,” her attorneys wrote in their motion.
But the lawyers argued that this acquiescence — characterized by prosecutors as a confession — was invalid. Lucio had a long history of being sexually and physically abused, they said, making her susceptible to the “aggressive, intimidating and psychological” tactics of the male officers. Potkin said police also judged Lucio’s body language, assuming her guilt because she slumped over and made little eye contact during the late-night questioning.
“We see that in false confession cases frequently, that there is a misclassification error,” Potkin said. “Police erroneously conclude that somebody did something, and then an interrogation begins.”
Jurors never heard testimony to that effect. Lucio’s defense team said they tried to present two expert witnesses to testify that her “confession” was not trustworthy because her history of abuse made her want to please people. But the judge excluded both witnesses on the grounds that their testimony was irrelevant, Lucio’s lawyers wrote in their motion.
“There exists serious reasons to doubt the jury’s verdict and death sentence: that jury was prevented from hearing Ms. Lucio’s defense that would have contextualized her custodial statement, the principal evidence against her,” the attorneys wrote.
False confessions are not uncommon. About 17 percent of the exonerations in 2019 reported by the National Registry of Exonerations involved false or fabricated confessions. People may admit to crimes they did not commit in part because of intimidation, fear or compromised reasoning abilities, according to the Innocence Project, an organization that seeks to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.
In Lucio’s case, her attorneys said a state medical examiner found bruising on Mariah’s body, a fracture in her arm, missing or patchy hair, and marks on her back and concluded that she had been abused and died of a head injury. But Potkin said investigators never seriously considered other possibilities.
“There has never been a proper examination of the forensic evidence in this case to determine the medical support that Mariah died accidentally,” she said.
Through their latest motion, Lucio’s attorneys are seeking additional time to present evidence of her innocence. If the Cameron County District Attorney does not withdraw its request for an execution date, Potkin said the case will probably continue in state court. The Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, as well as Abbott, would make decisions on a potential clemency application.
“There are a number of people who could step in and stop this,” Potkin said.