TThe clock is ticking. Melissa Lucio, 53 years old, will be executed by Texas. Due to her confession in 2008 for the alleged killing of Mariah, two years old, Ms. Lucio was convicted. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has now filed a request for clemency from her lawyers. The evidence points to the fact that the child’s death was due to injuries sustained in an accident and not from murder.
I did not work on this case and am not privy to the entire case file, so I am not in a position to argue for Ms. Lucio’s actual innocence. But I am in a position to say this: The five-plus hours of police interrogation of this highly vulnerable woman, starting approximately two hours after her child’s death and late into the night, were so psychologically coercive that the risk of eliciting a false confession was substantial.
I know what you’re thinking: It is inconceivable that an innocent person would confess to a crime they did not commit—much less a murder, much less the murder of their own child. It’s inconceivable until you are informed at two levels—the first pertaining to the reality in general of false confessions; the second pertaining specifically to the interrogation of Melissa Lucio.
Innocence Project archives 375 DNA exonerations of American citizens dating back to 1989. This includes some from death row. To everyone’s surprise, false confessions (by the defendant or someone else implicating the defendant) have contributed to 29% of these wrongful convictions. This number jumps to 60% in cases of homicide, contrary to common belief. And these are only the “lucky” cases that were discovered; they represent an unknown fraction of a larger total.
Studies on false confessions point to personal as well as situational risks. Some people are vulnerable, including minors or adults who have IQ problems, histories of mental disorders, and certain interrogation tactics. Combining these two groups of factors can have devastating results. We now have Ms. Lucio.
On February 15, 2007, two-year-old Mariah, the youngest of Melissa’s twelve children, fell down a flight of stairs while the family was moving into a new apartment. They called 911 two days later to inform her that she had fallen down a flight of stairs while moving into a new apartment. She had died. Police arrived and decided on the spot—without seeking medical records or waiting for an autopsy—that the bruised child was murdered and that Ms. Lucio was the culprit. The four detectives in Texas and the Texas Ranger interrogated her and found out that she was guilty.
Ms. Lucio strongly denied ever harming her daughter more than 100 times. However, the constant bullying was unabated. Imagine the grief and pain that would have afflicted a mother during that period. It’s hard to believe. Furthermore, Lucio suffered from trauma as well as sexual abuse in childhood and was an adult victim to domestic violence. Ms. Lucio had mental and substance abuse issues and cognitive limitations, which can make people compliant and suggestionible. In addition, her interrogation was extended past three hours because she was pregnant.
Even though Ms. Lucio did not have a history of violence, the police continued their pursuit. On trial, the police officer asked Ms. Lucio why she believed her guilty, and cited her passive demeanor. “Somebody with their head down, like their shoulders are slouched forward, and they don’t look at you,” he testified. “They’re hiding—hiding the truth.” Ms. Lucio had just discovered that her child had died, she stood accused of murder, and this investigator cannot imagine an alternative interpretation for passive demeanor? Tunnel vision was in full swing, regardless of whether it was valid.
Over hundreds of experiments in social psychology have shown that eye contact and posture have very little diagnostic value. Police, no matter how well-trained they may be, are not capable of reading minds and using their demeanors to discern truth from deception with near-perfect accuracy. However, they can often be confident in their intuitions and this confidence has led to wrongful convictions.
When Ms. Lucio was identified by detectives as a prime suspect, it was a difficult process of interrogation. Some of this was unintentionally not recorded. Detectives immediately confronted Ms. Lucio with an accusation. They used a variety of techniques to increase the stress and denial of her accusation. They said they knew exactly what happened and pretended to have evidence of her guilt—evidence now known to be false. They forced her to look at graphic photos of Mariah’s injuries. Then they hinted at a veiled threat if she did not cooperate: “I won’t be surprised if you won’t be able to attend your child’s funeral.”
Using classic techniques, detectives also used “soft” minimization tactics that make it easier to confess. Feigning sympathy, the ranger offered up the “theme” that with so many children to care for, Ms. Lucio must have made a “mistake” born of frustration. Research shows that this offer of moral justification leads people to “hear” leniency—as if an explicit promise was made. This theme culminated in what trained interrogators call the “alternative question,” the ultimate Hobson’s choice: Was this an accident, or are you a cold-blooded killer? The question was posed to her. “I’m innocent” is not an option.
Caught between a cross current of threats and promises, Ms. Lucio eventually and reluctantly uttered the words “I guess I did it” followed by other vague but incriminating admissions. The doll was then handed to her and she was instructed to strike it harder and harder each time. She was shown how to do it by the ranger. The ranger demonstrated how. As the session closed, she is crying and uttering the words “I wish I was dead.”
My colleague Gisli H. Gudjonsson, a professor emeritus at King’s College in London, started his career as a police officer, then he went on to become a clinical forensic psychologist and leading expert on compliance, suggestibility, and false confessions. At the request of the Innocence Project, Dr. Gudjonsson examined the case materials and was horrified by the tactics used to plow over Ms. Lucio’s denials and break her down into a state of capitulation. In The Independent, he wrote that “Texas is executing an innocent woman.”
One might assume that Dr. Gudjonsson or I would adopt a psychoanalytical approach to law enforcement. But that is not the case. David Thompson is President of Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, an interview training firm located in Chicago, reviewed the interrogation materials in this case and concluded that “Ms. Lucio’s admissions are unreliable and have many of the hallmarks of a coerced-compliant false confession.”
Juries and judges find it difficult to evaluate confession evidence. A confession by a confessor can lead investigators to either a murder weapon, or even a corpse. This is proof of firsthand guilty knowledge. That’s a good confession. Lucio did not provide any such information.
Surprisingly, many false confessions are supported by evidence from witnesses or forensic examinations later found to have been discredited. As a result of forensic confirmation biases, these errors typically followed—and were tainted by—the confession itself. In this case, two of the detectives who took Ms. Lucio’s confession were literally in the room with the forensic pathologist afterward as she conducted the autopsy.
Recently, several jurors who served on Ms. Lucio’s capital trial jury have expressed doubts about her conviction. She is now being executed. The Houston Chronicle, Johnny Galvan, Jr. says the jury was not fully informed about the Ms. Lucio’s interrogation and repeated denials. In his words, “The idea that my decision to take another person’s life was not based on complete and accurate information in a fair trial is horrifying.”
The execution of a woman on grounds of coerced, uncorroborated confession, obtained under extreme duress from a woman whose innocence is questionable, would amount to a terrible judgment of inexcusable severity. This case deserves another look.
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