Melissa Lucio Innocence Case Summary
A Victim of Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence Wrongly Convicted and Condemned to Die for the Accidental Death of Her Daughter
Melissa Lucio, a Mexican-American who is facing execution in Texas on April 27, 2022, was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death after her daughter, Mariah, sustained injuries from an accidental fall. Although Melissa repeatedly told the police that she did not kill her daughter, they continued to interrogate her for five hours until she agreed, falsely, to take responsibility for some of her daughter’s injuries. Melissa suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse and domestic violence, which made her especially vulnerable to the police’s coercive interrogation tactics.
A broad and diverse coalition, including the Innocence Network, the Texas Council on Family Violence, other domestic violence and battered women’s organizations, former prosecutors, dozens of Baptist and Evangelical leaders, experts in gender-based violence, and law professors have expressed support for clemency for Melissa. Melissa’s execution would cause further suffering for her children who lost their sister 15 years ago.
The District Attorney, the courts, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and the Governor must undertake a meaningful review of Melissa’s case. That review can only happen if the execution date is withdrawn or stayed.
After a Tragedy, the State Rushes to Judgment
The medical examiner who determined Mariah’s death was a homicide did not take into account the two year-old’s medical history, which was extensive.
On February 15, 2007, as Melissa was moving her family to a new apartment, Mariah fell down a steep exterior staircase leading to the second floor apartment. After the fall on the stairs, her injuries did not appear life-threatening. Two days later, she went down for a nap and did not wake up. (Motion to Withdraw Execution Date at https://tinyurl.com/4tnjw7nk at pp. 6-7.)
Mariah had a physical disability, a foot that turned inward, and still had difficulty walking at 21 months old (on average, most children start walking at about twelve months of age). As a result of her disability, she was unstable when walking and had a history of falls, including a recent fall at a preschool program where she lost consciousness. (Motion at pp. 6-7.) In addition to Mariah’s history of falls, while in foster care, she had breathing difficulties, chronic asthma, and required regular medical appointments to monitor her condition.
Melissa was the mother to twelve children with Mariah being the youngest and had no record of violence at the time of her arrest. Thousands of pages of protective service records and recorded interviews with her children show that Melissa was not abusive. (Motion at p. 30.)
Melissa’s Lifetime of Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence Made Her Especially Vulnerable to Coercive Interrogation Tactics
Melissa’s uncle and stepfather sexually abused her over a period of years, starting when she was six years old. She told her mother, but nothing was done. As a young teenager, she was raped again by an adult man. (Motion at p. 4.)
At age 16, Melissa got married, becoming a child bride, to escape the abuse she suffered and witnessed in her childhood home. (Motion at p. 5.) Melissa’s first husband was a violent alcoholic, according to testimony at trial (37 RR 194). He abandoned Melissa after she gave birth to five children. Melissa’s next partner continued the cycle of violence and abuse. She had seven children by her second husband. He beat Melissa, choked her, threatened to kill her, and repeatedly raped her. Some of Melissa’s children also reported that he struck them. (Motion at pp. 5-6.)
The family sunk deeper into poverty and was intermittently homeless. Melissa worked cleaning houses and sought other jobs when she could. Her partner Robert was jailed for months at a time. By the time Melissa was 35, she was struggling with abuse, cognitive and psychological impairments, addiction, and poverty. She had given birth to 12 children and suffered multiple miscarriages.
Anatomy of a False Confession
Grieving the loss of her daughter and numb with shock just hours after her death, Melissa was hauled into an interrogation room where armed, male police officers stood over her, yelled at her, threatened her, berated her parenting, and accused her repeatedly of causing her daughter’s death. Melissa was especially vulnerable to the aggressive, intimidating, and psychologically manipulative interrogation tactics of the police and male authority figures due to her history of abuse, trauma and low IQ.
Melissa repeatedly told the police she did not kill her daughter; that Mariah fell down the stairs. But the officers continued to threaten her, using interrogation techniques that are so coercive that social scientists have categorized them as false confession “risk factors” because of their tendency to produce false confessions, particularly when applied to people with cognitive impairments and trauma survivors, like Melissa. (Motion at pp. 8-11.)
A Texas Ranger who led hours of Melissa’s coercive interrogation testified at Melissa’s trial to his unscientific opinion that he immediately “knew” Melissa was guilty based on her slumped posture and because she failed to make eye contact. Recent scientific studies have demonstrated the inaccuracy of this testimony.
The Ranger, using a tactic that has produced known false confessions from innocent parents wrongfully convicted of killing their children, then handed Melissa a baby doll and insisted she demonstrate how she “hit” Mariah. Complying with the Ranger’s repeated exhortations to use more force and “do it real hard,” Melissa eventually did what the Ranger insisted upon and showed her to do --she hit the doll repeatedly with force. (Motion at pp. 8, 10.)
After five hours of continuous interrogation, Melissa, who was sleep-deprived and pregnant with twins, was emotionally and physically exhausted. At approximately 3:00 a.m., in response to a Texas Ranger’s repeated demands, Melissa finally acquiesced and said, “I don’t know what you want me to say. . . I guess I did it.”
Lacking any solid physical evidence or eyewitnesses, Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos’ team characterized Melissa’s acquiescence as a “confession” to murder. (Motion at pp. 8-11.)
Abused Latina Women and Wrongful Convictions
Of the 67 women listed on the National Registry of Exonerations who were exonerated after a murder conviction, over one quarter (17/67) involved false confessions and nearly one third (20/67) involved child victims.
Roughly one in three Latinas will suffer intimate partner violence in her lifetime, but the rates are higher for Latinas like Melissa who struggle with poverty and who were sexually abused as children. Also, research indicates that police tend to disbelieve women of color when they report domestic violence. At Melissa’s death penalty trial, the prosecution belittled the evidence of Melissa’s history of sexual abuse and domestic violence. (See trial transcript vol. 39 pp. 161-62.)
What the Jury Never Heard
The jury never heard how Melissa’s history of trauma and abuse shaped her reactions immediately following her daughter’s death. Without that context, the jury convicted Melissa of capital murder.
Melissa’s trial attorneys were not prepared for the penalty phase of the trial. Lead counsel hamstrung his mitigation specialist and expert until weeks before the trial began. As a result, Melissa’s mitigation specialist never completed her investigation and the jury never learned about the extent of Melissa’s history of child sexual abuse and domestic violence.
The omission of this mitigating evidence was particularly damaging because the prosecution had a weak case for death. Melissa had no prior record of violence and the State’s sole evidence of future dangerousness was the death of Mariah and a prior conviction for driving under the influence.
Gender Bias Played Role in Disparate Sentencing in Melissa’s Case
Melissa regrets not getting medical care for Mariah earlier, but she is not guilty of murder. Her husband, Mariah’s father, was found guilty of child endangerment and sentenced to four years, even though he had a history of assaultive behavior. At most, a charge of neglect was more appropriate for Melissa than murder.
Corrupt Cameron County DA Villalobos personally led Melissa’s prosecution. In 2007, in exchange for a bribe, he enabled the release and flight from justice of Amit Livingston, a man who had killed his estranged girlfriend. As DA Villalobos was scheming to facilitate the release of this male batterer, he was pursuing the death penalty against a woman who was a lifelong victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Former DA Villalobos is now serving a 13-year federal sentence for bribery and extortion.
So Far, the Courts’ Hands Have Been Tied
A majority of judges have agreed that the trial court was wrong to exclude the psychologist’s expert testimony, which would have provided an explanation for Melissa’s acquiescence during the coercive interrogation. “The State presented no physical evidence or witness testimony establishing that [Melissa] abused Mariah or any of her children, let alone killed Mariah,” seven Fifth Circuit judges wrote. By excluding expert explanations for Melissa’s remarks during her interrogation, the trial court wrongfully barred Melissa’s right to present her defense. (Motion at pp. 18-19.) But a divided Fifth Circuit believed that current federal law cuts off the courts’ ability to correct this injustice.
On February 18, 2022, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a resolution calling on officials not to execute Melissa before the Commission has had an opportunity to reach a final decision in her case. The Commission considered the evidence that Melissa’s “life was shaped by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse,” and that the same experiences shaped her response to a coercive interrogation.
Melissa is a Person of Deep Catholic Faith Who Walks with God
Melissa grew up without much religious instruction, but began her walk with God on September 26, 2014. She is a person of deep Catholic faith who attends Catholic mass services every Monday and meets individually with a pastor, Deacon Ronnie, on Thursdays and Sundays. In 2015, Melissa and other women on death row formed a Bible study group where, she says, “we all help each other.” Her main concern now is for her family, especially having her children support each other. Because of Melissa, her son John has also devoted himself to God, and she reads a Bible verse to him at the beginning of each of their visits.
There is Too Much Doubt to Execute Melissa Lucio
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles should recommend clemency and Governor Abbott should spare Melissa’s life.
Many questions remain about the forensic evidence in this case, including the results of the autopsy, which have been disputed by a neurosurgeon and a pathologist who specializes in child abuse deaths. Much of the evidence against Melissa was tainted – including the testimony of a so-called prison expert who testified falsely about the risk that she would commit acts of violence in prison. She was prosecuted by a corrupt DA who did not hesitate to break the law when it suited his financial interests—and this fact alone warrants a complete re-examination of the facts and evidence in her case.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, 186 people have been exonerated from death row, including 16 in Texas, and the number of people whose lives were taken before they were able to prove their innocence is unknown.
For more information on Melissa Lucio’s innocence case, please visit the Innocence Project and The
Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.