Texas planned to execute Melissa Lucio on Wednesday. Republican and Democratic state legislators had prayed with her on death row and called for her execution to be halted. Sister Helen Prejean had spoken on her behalf. Even Kim Kardashian lent her support.
Why? Because Melissa Lucio is innocent.
Now the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a request to stay her execution. Lucio will now have a hearing to prove that her conviction is wrongful and based on a coerced “confession,” unscientific evidence and false testimony.
Lucia can point to her repeated assertions of innocence, and newly discovered evidence that wasn’t presented at trial.
I represent women who have been wrongly convicted when no crime occurred. Perhaps shockingly, of the exonerated women listed in the National Registry of Exonerations database, 70% were victims of no-crime wrongful convictions.
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How does this happen? An accident – a health crisis, a fall, a fire – is misinterpreted as a willful and violent act. For women, the accident victim is usually someone they loved: a partner, parent or child.
Lucio has been convicted of capital murder. But she is the victim, convicted as a result of a tragic death that was not a crime. Lucio is not alone.
Women caretakers often blamed
When confronted by police and accused of killing their loved ones, women caretakers frequently have a similar but surprising response: They confess. They internalize the idea that they must have committed some sort of harm to their loved one, particularly when confronted with scientific evidence.
Police can lie to suspects, and the use of unreliable scientific evidence like an autopsy or emergency room report can convince women that the science must be right, that they somehow harmed their loved one or have a duty and obligation to take responsibility for what happened.
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Amanda Knox, who was exonerated after being convicted of murder in Italy, has described the interrogation room as “a situation designed to amplify the absolute control and authority of investigators – an experience I know only too well.”
Melissa Lucio had just learned about her child’s death. As a girl, Melissa was raised in an abusive household, then she partnered with abusive men. In an interrogation room, where she was berated by police officers – stand-in authority figures – she finally broke down and simply took responsibility for whatever had happened to her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah.
Recognizing this disturbing sequence of events, three federal judges on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Lucio’s conviction in 2019. But prosecutors then asked the full court to reconsider, leading to a 10-7 decision last year that reinstated her conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her case.
Only 5.7% of death row convictions are reversed in Texas.
Accidents mischaracterized as crimes
Lucio’s daughter Mariah had fallen down a flight of stairs. But police insisted the child’s death was no accident.
Child deaths are tragic, so people look to blame someone, particularly the “bad mother.”
I represent a woman in Mississippi, Tasha Mercedez Shelby, who was convicted of killing her stepson when he died from a shortfall and underlying medical issues. Similar to Lucio’s case, a medical examiner said the injuries could only be caused by physical abuse and not the child’s underlying medical history.
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Fifteen years later, that medical examiner changed his opinion based on advances in science. He even changed the manner of death on the child’s death certificate from homicide to accident. Yet the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed Shelby’s conviction in 2020. Shelby is now waiting for her petition to be heard by a federal district court judge.
Lucio and Shelby each became suspects precisely because they were the primary caretakers. They have lost years of freedom, years to be with their other children, over “crimes” that did not occur.
As a teenager, Sabrina Butler-Smith was wrongly convicted for the accidental death of her child and was sentenced to die. Now exonerated, she spoke at a recent Innocence Network conference on Lucio’s behalf. Fellow exonerees, journalists, lawyers and activists applauded for Butler-Smith – and for Lucio, an innocent woman still on death row.
Lucio has a chance to prove her innocence and save her own life.
Another questionable execution
Nearly 20 years ago, Texas executed another person based on faulty scientific evidence. Cameron Todd Willingham was found guilty of murdering his three young children by intentionally setting fire to their shared home. He was sentenced to death. Shortly before his execution, a scientific report showed the fire was not caused by arson.
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The report was sent to then-Gov. Rick Perry. He didn’t intervene, and Willingham was executed Feb. 17, 2004. Evidence since his execution has demonstrated flaws in the prosecution and made a persuasive case for his innocence, and fire science is now rightly known for its unreliability.
When he was state attorney general, Abbott blocked the Texas Forensic Science Commission from further investigating Willingham’s conviction and execution, saying the commission lacked the necessary authority.
Now, Abbott won’t need to decide on whether to spare Lucio’s life, because the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has decided for him – for the time being.
Valena Beety is deputy director of the Academy for Justice, a law professor at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, and author of the forthcoming book “Manifesting Justice: Wrongly Convicted Women Reclaim Their Rights.” You can sign the Innocence Project petition to call for Melissa Lucio’s execution to be stopped.