Legislators Urge Abbott to Spare the Life of Woman on Death Row
Justice for Melissa Lucio?
Seven Texas legislators prayed with Melissa Lucio last week at the women's death row prison in Gatesville, where she awaits her scheduled execution on April 27. "It was just a sweet, sweet time together, very powerful," Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, co-chair of the Texas House of Representatives' Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, told reporters after the meeting. "We're more resolute and committed than ever to fighting over the next [two] weeks to save her life."
The legislators' visit was part of a new outpouring of support for Lucio, who has been on death row for 14 years for the 2007 death of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. During an aggressive interrogation after Mariah's death, the Harlingen mother of 12 asserted her innocence over 100 times, but after five hours eventually took partial responsibility for some of her daughter's injuries: "I guess I did it." Prosecutors characterized this as a full confession at her subsequent trial; despite little other evidence, it was enough to secure a capital murder conviction.
Lucio's supporters say the admissions were coerced and she is innocent of any crime, let alone murder; rather, she is herself a survivor of abuse and domestic violence. A majority of the Texas House agrees that her execution should be halted. Last month, 83 representatives wrote the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott to urge that Lucio's sentence be commuted or that she be granted a reprieve so that new evidence in the case can be considered. Reality TV star Kim Kardashian is rallying public support as well, and over 207,400 people have signed an online petition asking Texas officials to stop the execution.
On April 3, Johnny Galvan Jr., a juror at Lucio's 2008 trial, wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle expressing remorse for his vote to put her to death. Galvan said that he and his fellow jurors never heard about the coercive interrogation by the Texas Rangers, alternative explanations for Mariah's injuries (the toddler had fallen down a flight of stairs two days before her death), or testimony from Lucio's older children that she had never abused them or Mariah. "The idea that my decision to take another person's life was not based on complete and accurate information is horrifying," Galvan wrote. "I am joining several of my fellow jurors in calling for a new trial."
Ten of Lucio's children also wrote to the governor and Board of Pardons and Paroles last week, asking that their mother's life be spared. "The death of our sister Mariah and the prosecution of our parents tore our family apart," the children wrote. "The wounds never fully healed. They probably never will. We ask you not to tear those wounds open again. Please give us the chance for closure. Please give us a chance for peace. Please allow us to reconcile with Mariah's death and remember her without fresh pain, anguish, and grief."
Carl Buntion, at age 78, is the oldest man on death row in the United States. He is frail and needs to use a wheelchair when he leaves his cell. In 2017, he told reporter Joy Diaz that he suffers from extremely high blood pressure, vertigo, and hepatitis C, and that doctors suspect he has prostate cancer but prison rules had made it impossible for him to get a biopsy. Texas officials have scheduled his execution for April 21; if it proceeds, Buntion will be the oldest person put to death by the state in the modern era.
Buntion is part of what is often referred to as "the aging of death row." Death sentences reached their highest volume in Texas at the turn of this century – in 1999, 48 people were sentenced to death. Since 2015, however, only two to seven people have received the sentence each year. Meanwhile, inmates now live on death row for decades. In the 1980s, after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Texas to reinstate capital punishment, executions occurred on average about seven years after conviction. Today, many death row inmates like Buntion have spent more than 30 years awaiting execution. They have become senior citizens who, because of the conditions they are forced to live under, are at a heightened risk of illness and dementia.
Death penalty reform advocates say there is no question that Buntion is guilty of the 1991 murder of Houston Police Officer James Irby, but that his execution would be a spectacle violating the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. "It would be a serious miscarriage of justice for the State of Texas to execute a frail, elderly man who has spent more than 30 years on death row and does not pose a threat to anyone," Kristin Houlé of the Texas Coaltion to Abolish the Death Penalty said. "Carl Buntion should be allowed to live his remaining days in prison."