- Melissa Lucio, 53, is set to be executed in Texas on April 27 for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter in 2007.
- Her lawyers say new evidence shows the toddler’s death was an accident and have filed for clemency.
- In recent weeks, Lucio has received support from state lawmakers and even the jurors who convicted her.
A Texas woman on death row for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter is seeking clemency amid new evidence and recent public support from state lawmakers and jurors from her trial more than a decade ago.
Melissa Lucio, 53, is set to be executed April 27. She was sentenced to death in 2008 after the court found her daughter, Mariah, suffered physical abuse leading to her death.
But Lucio and her attorneys say the toddler’s death was an accident caused by an undiagnosed injury Mariah sustained after falling down the stairs two days prior.
On March 22, Lucio’s lawyers filed a clemency petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, arguing that new evidence showed Mariah’s death was accidental and caused by unseen internal injuries. Attorneys also say Lucio asserted her innocence more than 100 times during the interrogation alongside her confession.
“It’s important for people to understand that Melissa’s conviction rests on false and erroneous medical evidence,” said Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project who is one of the attorneys representing Lucio. “And her clemency petition is supported by important new scientific evidence that no decisionmaker, no court, has ever heard: that Mariah’s death was a tragedy and not a murder.”
With just three weeks before the date of her scheduled execution, Lucio’s case is increasingly drawing attention — from jurors who’ve reconsidered their verdict to a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have urged for clemency.
As execution date looms, public support grows louder
Multiple jurors who served on Lucio’s capital trial jury in 2008 have spoken out against her execution in recent months.
Juror Johnny Galvan Jr. wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on Sunday stating he felt peer-pressured into handing down a death row sentence for Lucio, calling for a new trial and for Gov. Greg Abbott to grant clemency.
Galvan Jr., two additional jurors and one alternate have also signed affidavits expressing doubts about her conviction, according to documents provided to USA TODAY by Lucio’s attorneys.
“That should give pause to any decisionmaker in this case,” Potkin told USA TODAY. “The very people who came back with a death sentence would not have done so if they had a fuller picture of the evidence. And so it really demands that she have an opportunity to have a fair trial.”
Meanwhile at the end of March, a bipartisan majority of more than 80 lawmakers in the Texas House of Representatives signed a letter urging the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend clemency to Lucio, citing questions about Lucio’s guilt and the legal process behind her conviction.
The legislators urged to board to either ask Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to commute her sentence to a lighter penalty, or delay her execution to allow fuller examination of the evidence.
“The system literally failed Melissa Lucio at every single turn,” state Rep. Jeff Leach said at a news conference March 24. “As a conservative Republican myself, who has long been a supporter of the death penalty in the most heinous cases, I have never seen a more troubling case.”
‘I FEEL FREE’:Chicago teen framed for 1985 murder becomes 3,000th person exonerated in US
What happened in Melissa Lucio’s case?
Lucio, a mother of 14, was pregnant with two children at the time of Mariah’s death.According to her attorneys, Lucio was first married at 16 years old and then abused by two husbands.
Potkin told USA TODAY that Mariah had fallen down the stairs of Lucio’s apartment and showed no visible signs of injury at the time. But over the course of the next few days, the toddler began to act lethargic and eat less. Two days later, Lucio found Mariah unresponsive in bed and called paramedics.
In the 2008 trial, expert witnesses testified that the bruises found on Mariah’s body during her autopsy could only have been caused by physical abuse that occurred shortly before the child’s death.
But Lucio’s lawyers say jurors were not allowed to see evidence that explained Mariah’s injuries were caused by the fall.
In their clemency petition, Lucio’s attorneys also argue her confession was false and coerced during a five-hour interrogation that happened only two hours after her daughter died and that didn’t end until 3 a.m. Melissa claimed her innocence numerous times throughout the interrogation, alongside her confession.
According to the clemency petition, two experts on false confession confirmed Lucio was “was uniquely vulnerable” to coercion during the interrogation because of her “cognitive deficit, history of significant trauma and corresponding mental health issues.” This exacerbated her to risk for manipulation, her lawyers argue.
However, the Texas Attorney General’s Office maintains that evidence shows Mariah suffered the “absolute worst” case of child abuse her emergency room doctor had seen in 30 years. “Lucio still advances no evidence that is reliable and supportive of her acquittal,” the office wrote in court documents last month.
In 2019, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned Lucio’s conviction, ruling she was deprived of “her constitutional right to present a meaningful defense.”
But the state of Texas appealed the decision, and the full court of appeals ruled the conviction had to be upheld for procedural reasons, “despite the difficult issue of the exclusion of testimony that might have cast doubt on the credibility of Lucio’s confession.”
What is the clemency process in Texas?
The state board could bring down a decision as late as April 25, just two days before Lucio’s scheduled execution, Potkin said.
Should the board recommend clemency, the decision falls on the desk of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. If it decides against the recommendation, Abbott could still issue a reprieve for Lucio to present further evidence related to her case.
The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Lucio, must also answer Lucio’s clemency petition by April 12 and could choose not to oppose clemency. The District Attorney’s office did not respond to a USA TODAY request for comment.
Abbott previously granted clemency to death row inmate Thomas Whitaker in 2018, just minutes before his scheduled execution by lethal injection. Whitaker was convicted of the masterminding the fatal shootings of his mother and brother in 2003, after his father, who survived the shooting, led the effort for Whitaker’s clemency.
Lucio is among four people in Texas with scheduled execution dates in 2022, and she would be the first Latina woman to be executed in the United States since the resumption of the death penalty in the 1970s, according to her legal team. Texas leads the nation in the number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics-Capital Punishment.
Lucio’s case has also been featured in the media in recent years. Hulu produced a 2020 documentary, “The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” detailing the defense’s push for her innocence, and her case was mentioned in an episode of the HBO show “Last Week Tonight” earlier this month focused on wrongful convictions.
Contributing: The Associated Press; Chuck Lindell, Austin American-Statesman