During hours of continuous questioning, Melissa Lucio had denied brutally beating her 2-year-old daughter more than 100 times.
But troubled by a lifetime of abuse and the grief of losing her daughter, Maria, her lawyers say, the Texas woman finally acquiesced to investigators. “I guess I did,” Lucio replied asking whether she was responsible for some of Maria’s injuries.
Her lawyers say the statement was misinterpreted by prosecutors as a confession of murder – tarnishing the rest of the investigation into Maria’s 2007 death, with only the evidence gathered to substantiate that conclusion. with, and to help in his death sentence. They argue that Maria died from injuries sustained by falling 14 steps down a steep staircase outside the family’s apartment in the south Texas city of Harlingen.
As his April 27 execution date nears, Lucio’s lawyers expect new evidence, along with growing public support, from jurors who now doubt the conviction and more than half the Texas House of Representatives. Se – Will persuade the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to sentence Governor Greg Abbott to death or reduce his sentence.
“Maria’s death was a tragedy, not a murder. … Going forward for this execution would be an absolutely devastating message. It would send a message that innocence doesn’t matter,” said Vanessa Potkin, one of Lucio’s attorneys. Which is with the Innocence Project.
Lucio’s lawyers say the jurors never heard forensic evidence that could explain that Maria’s various injuries were actually caused by a fall the day before. They also state that Lucio was not allowed to present evidence questioning the validity of his confession.
The Texas Attorney General’s office has maintained evidence that Maria suffered the “absolutely worst” case of child abuse her emergency room doctor had seen in 30 years.
“Lucio still does not provide any evidence that is credible and supports his acquittal,” the office wrote in court documents last month.
The Cameron County District Attorney’s office, which sued Lucio, declined to comment.
Lucio, 53, will be the first Latina executed by Texas and the first woman since 2014. Only 17 women have been executed in the US since the Supreme Court lifted the ban on the death penalty in 1976, most recently in January 2021.
In her clemency petition, Lucio’s attorneys say that while she used drugs that caused her to temporarily lose custody of her children, she was a loving mother who sought to stay drug-free and support her family. worked to nurture. Lucio has 14 children and at the time of Maria’s death was pregnant with the youngest two.
Lucio and his children struggled with poverty. According to the petition, sometimes they became homeless and depended on food banks for food. Potkin said Child Protective Services was present in the family’s life, but none of her children ever filed an allegation of abuse.
Lucio was sexually assaulted several times since the age of 6, and was physically and emotionally abused by two husbands. Her lawyers say this lifelong trauma made her susceptible to making a false confession.
In the 2020 documentary “The State of Texas v Melissa,” Lucio said investigators kept pushing for him to say that he hurt Maria.
“I was not going to assume the cause of his death because I was not responsible,” Lucio said.
Her lawyers say Lucio’s sentence was more than proportionate to the punishment received by her husband and Maria’s father, Robert Alvarez. Lucio’s lawyers argue that he received a four-year sentence for hurting a child by default, despite being also responsible for Maria’s care.
In 2019, a three-judge panel of the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Lucio’s sentence, ruling that she was deprived of “her constitutional right to present a meaningful defence.” However, in 2021 the full court said that the conviction should be upheld for procedural reasons, “despite the difficult issue of exclusion of evidence, which may have cast doubt on the credibility of Lucio’s confession.”
At Lucio’s trial, three jurors and an alternate have signed affidavits expressing doubts about his conviction.
“She wasn’t evil. She was just struggling. … Had we somehow heard the defendant defending her, we would have reached a different decision,” juror Johnny Galvan wrote in an affidavit.
In a letter to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and Abbott last month, 83 Texas House members said executing Lucio would be a “miscarriage of justice.”
“As a conservative Republican who has long been a supporter of the death penalty in the most heinous cases… I have never seen a case more disturbing than the case of Melissa Lucio,” said State Representative Jeff Leach, who signed letter.
Abbott can offer one-time, 30-day relief. If a majority of the parole board recommends it, it can grant pardon.
The board plans to vote on Lucio’s clemency petition two days before the scheduled execution, Rachel Alderett, the board’s director of support operations, said in an email. A spokesman for Abbott’s office did not return an email seeking comment.
Abbott has granted clemency to only one death row inmate, Thomas Whitaker, since taking office in 2015. Whitaker was convicted of masterminding the fatal shootings of his mother and brother. His father, who survived, led the effort to save Whitaker, saying that he would be tormented again if his son was executed.
Lucio’s supporters have said his clemency request is similar to that if he is killed, his family will be traumatized again.
“Please allow us to reconcile Maria’s death and remember her without fresh pain, anguish and grief. Please spare our mother’s life,” Lucio’s children wrote in a letter to Abbott and Board.