The highest criminal court in Texas on Monday halted the execution of Melissa Lucio—a mother whose murder conviction in the death of her 2-year-old daughter has come under increasing scrutiny amid doubts about her guilt.
Lucio (53 years old) was sentenced on April 27 to lethal injection for her 2007 daughter’s death. After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals gave Lucio a stay of execution for her 2007 death, she now faces a lower court to hear new evidence.
“I thank God for my life. He has always been my refuge and strength. The Court gave me the opportunity to prove my innocence and live. I’m grateful. Mariah is in my heart today and always,” Lucio said in a statement provided by her lawyer later on Monday. If Lucio’s execution would have taken place, she would be the first Latina in the U.S. to be killed in such a manner since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Lucio and her loved ones are excited for a new challenge. “(Her family) is ecstatic. They’re relieved. They were suffering from so much fear and anxiety and they’re hopeful going forward that we will prove Melissa’s innocence and that she’ll be released,” says Tivon Schardl, one of Lucio’s attorneys.
What was the immediate aftermath of the incident?
Lucio and her kids claim that Mariah, a 2-year-old girl, died after falling down the staircase to their apartment. (Lucio’s lawyers argue that Mariah had physical disabilities that made her walking unstable and led to a history of falls.) Two days later, the toddler did not wake up from a nap on her parents’ bed, they said. Prosecutors maintain that the girl’s body was covered in bruises and her death was due to abuse.
Police arrested Lucio; just two hours after her daughter’s death she had faced an interrogation in which her lawyers said “armed, male police officers stood over her, yelled at her, threatened her, berated her parenting, and repeatedly refused to accept anything less than an admission to causing her daughter’s death.” As a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, they said she was particularly vulnerable to law enforcement’s aggressive interrogation tactics. Lucio was convicted in part of her statements during the interrogation.
“It’s just so clearly a case of coercive interrogation tactics,” says Schardl, one of Lucio’s attorneys, who has argued that Lucio asserted her innocence more than 100 times during the interrogation. Schardl points out, however that Lucio did not have a history of violence and must be made a potential danger in Texas.
On March 22, Lucio’s attorneys submitted a clemency application to the governor, which included declarations from experts highlighting issues with the confession and medical evidence. The confession was essentially a “regurgitation” of facts and words the officers told her during their interrogation and the evidence was consistent with the conclusion that Mariah died from medical complications from a fall, they said.
In addition, five jurors made declarations in support of relief that they had grave concerns regarding evidence being withheld at trial.
Melissa Lucio (center) leads seven Texas legislators in prayer at the Mountain View Unit, Gatesville, Texas on April 6, 2022.
Texas state Rep. Jeff Leach/AP
Who are Lucio’s supporters?
Lucio’s case has drawn widespread outrage from a bipartisan group of more than 100 Texas state lawmakers, as well as dozens of anti-domestic violence, religious and Latino groups and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and John Oliver. They argue that medical evidence showing that Mariah’s death was consistent with an accident and a five-hour aggressive interrogation of a woman with a history of being abused should be reason enough to halt her execution.
Republican State Representative Jeff Leach was a long-standing advocate for Lucio’s clemency. He was also the one who delivered the news in an emotionally charged phone call to Lucio. This was first reported on by the Texas Tribune. “It was an overwhelming call for me. Probably a lot more overwhelming and joyful for her,” Leach tells TIME.
In a recording of the call, Lucio is heard laughing and crying as she asks: “Do you mean serious? Are you serious? When did this happen?”
Leach says that if Texas’ death penalty remains, policymakers need to consider reforms to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
“One thing that we can all agree on is that we deserve and expect and demand a government that we can trust and that’s fair and in Melissa’s case, I saw very clearly that the system failed her at every turn,” he says. “We cannot allow a system where a potentially innocent Texan can be killed.”
False confessions: A systemic problem
Criminal justice experts point out that the hostile interrogation tactics in Lucio’s case point to a more systemic problem. “Her case represents the tip of the iceberg. For every lucky one we catch, we discover there is some unknown number of false confessors still sitting in prison, because cases don’t get scrutinized,” says Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
An April 2022 analysis of the National Registry of Exonerations found that about 12% of all exonerated cases involved false confessions. The percentage rose to 34% if the victim was less than 18 years old at the time of their crime, and 69% if the victim is mentally ill or disabled. According to the Innocence Project, nearly 30% of all wrongful convictions that were overturned in America by DNA evidence have involved false confessions.
The police’s coercive interrogation tactics are likely what led to Lucio’s confession, Kassin says. During the interrogation, she at one point said the words “I guess I did it” before being handed a doll she was instructed to hit it repeatedly.
“I can point to so many false confessions that began with the words, ‘it looks like I did it. Perhaps I did. I guess I did it.’ That’s not the language of memory. That’s the language of inference. I’m making an assumption that I did it because apparently, you have this evidence,” he says.
“After five hours of relentless badgering—given her state of mind—breaking down is not that surprising” adds Kassin.
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