The Austin Chronicle

Death Watch: A Mother Set to Die

Melissa Lucio says she didn’t kill her daughter, and half of the Texas House of Representatives agree

By Brant Bingamon, April 8, 2022, News

By the fifth hour of the interrogation, Melissa Lucio had begun to repeat back some of what her interrogators demanded she say, though not enough to satisfy them. "I would spank her hard on her back," she said about her 2-year-old daughter Mariah, who had been found dead earlier that evening. "Well, do it real hard like you would do it," an interrogator instructed, disappointed that Lucio wasn't hitting the doll he'd put before her violently enough. But Lucio – exhausted, slumped down in her chair, avoiding eye contact – would only go so far. "I mean, that's the way I would do it," she replied. "I wouldn't pound on her."

It wasn't a full confession or a convincing one. But Lucio's statements from the interrogation were the main evidence that Cameron County prosecutors used to persuade jurors at her 2008 trial that she was guilty of murdering her child. Now, as the state of Texas prepares to put her to death on April 27, Lucio's family, attorneys, and supporters – including over half the Texas House of Representatives – are trying to stop the execution, in order to evaluate evidence that was never considered in the case.

That includes what Vanessa Pot­kin, the Innocence Project attorney who's been working on the case since the beginning of the year, calls Lucio's false confession. "Mariah's death was a tragedy, not a murder," Potkin said. "And like so many cases that we've worked on at the Innocence Project, Melissa's wrongful conviction began with a rush to judgment."

In Lucio's case, that rush to judgment began when first responders were called to the scene of Mariah's death on Feb. 17, 2007, and saw bruises on the infant's body, which they assumed were evidence of child abuse. They immediately suspected Lucio and hauled her into interrogation just as she had begun to grieve the loss of her daughter.

Three armed, male law enforcement officers spent the next five hours threatening the impoverished mother, yelling at her, criticizing her parenting, and insisting that she had to have caused her daughter's death. One told Lucio, "I won't be surprised if you won't be able to attend your child's funeral." Another said, "If I beat you half to death like that little child was beat, I bet you'd be dead too."

After extracting what they characterized as a confession, two of the officers accompanied the medical examiner into the autopsy room and told her that Lucio had admitted to the killing. The medical examiner agreed that Mariah had been abused and reportedly didn't look for other explanations for her injuries. At the trial, she testified that blunt force trauma was the cause of death. Prosecutors, displaying photos of Mariah's bruised body, argued that Lucio must have struck her daughter, even though she had never been known to be violent with her 12 children and none of them had seen her abuse Mariah.

Now, seven forensic pathologists hired by the Innocence Project have found another explanation for Mariah's bruises. They say that at the time of her death she had indications of disseminated intravascular coag­u­lation, a disorder that can be brought on by a head trauma. Lucio has always contended that two days before Mariah's death she fell down a flight of stairs, hitting her head. Though she seemed well at first, Mariah soon began to run a high fever. Dr. Michael Laposata, a pathologist at the UT Medical Branch at Galveston, said that if Mariah had DIC, her body would have bruised just from being picked up. "In patients with DIC, routine handling at home or in a hospital setting can cause significant bruising. It is not possible to tell a difference between a bruise from DIC and a bruise from abuse."

With the Innocence Project publicizing these and other issues with Lucio's case, a groundswell of public support is building to put her execution on hold. Over 200 anti-violence organizations and experts on sexual assault and domestic violence have urged the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute her sentence, saying that Lucio's history as a survivor of sexual and domestic abuse made her more susceptible to making an untrue confession. More than 100 Baptist evangelical and Catholic faith leaders have joined them.

And on March 22, 87 members of the Texas House of Representatives joined as well, arguing that killing Lucio will retraumatize her children, who were broken into different homes when their mother was taken away in 2007. "Executing [Lucio] will not achieve justice for Mariah," the lawmakers wrote. "Instead, it will cause more suffering for Mariah's siblings, her grandmother, her father, and her aunts and uncles, who all lost Mariah 14 years ago and are desperate not to lose her mother. A commutation or, at a minimum, a reprieve, would prevent further harm to a family that has already experienced tremendous loss."

As of press time, Lucio's attorneys have filed for a commutation or 120-day reprieve from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles so her claims of actual innocence can be examined. We'll update this case online and in next week's issue.

On March 24, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with death penalty reform advocates that if Texas wants to execute John Ramir­ez, it must allow his pastor to lay hands on him and pray over him in the execution chamber. This is the latest development in the long-running drama in which the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, in an effort to keep its execution machine running, has argued that touch and audible prayer from a spiritual advisor pose security risks. The department pledged to change its execution protocol for the third time in three years to comply with the court's decision.

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