Melissa Lucio’s Execution Halted

The mother convicted for killing her daughter could receive a new trial

The crescendo of public support for Melissa Lucio worked. On April 25, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of the mother of 14 and ordered Lucio's original trial court in Cameron County to determine, sometime within the next year, whether she is actually innocent and whether state prosecutors presented false testimony and hid evidence at her trial. It's possible that her case will then be retried.

The decision was met with relief by Lucio's family and supporters. Her execution had been just two days away.

"I am grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence," Lucio said in a statement in which she used the term "grateful" three times. "I am grateful to have more days to be a mother to my children and a grandmother to my grandchildren. I will use my time to help bring them to Christ. I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf."

Lucio was first placed behind bars in Feb­ru­ary of 2007, when authorities were called to her home after her 2-year-old daughter Mariah stopped breathing. Finding bruises on the infant's body, police suspected Lucio of child abuse and subjected her to a grueling, five-hour interrogation, insisting she admit to killing her child. Lucio asserted her innocence over 100 times, but in the end took partial responsibility for her daughter's injuries. This admission, which her supporters say was coerced, was the main evidence used to convict her at trial. New evidence developed by attorneys from the Innocence Project establishes that Mariah's bruises and death were the result of a brain injury sustained in a fall down a flight of stairs two days before she died.

As more has been learned about her case, many have come to believe that Lucio is innocent. She's received the support of:

Five jurors from her original trial who say they were not provided all the available evidence and regret their vote to put her to death;

Hundreds of religious organizations and anti-domestic abuse groups who argue that Lucio, as a lifelong victim of abuse, was susceptible to making a false confession;

Protesters who have staged at least 16 rallies across the nation;

Hundreds of thousands who have signed online petitions; and

Over 100 members of the Texas Legis­lat­ure, including 40 Republicans.

“What you want to know more than anything … is that the system can be trusted, that it’s fair, that it’s reliable. And right now, I have as a policymaker severe and sincere questions and concerns about whether that’s true.” – State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano

This last group is particularly notable. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, a conservative Republican who has long defended the death penalty, helped lead the effort to stop Lucio's execution. As chair of the interim House committee studying criminal justice reform, Leach gathered fellow lawmakers' support for a petition to the Board of Pardons and Paroles in March. Weeks later, he and Vice Chair Joe Moody, D-El Paso, brought a delegation of House members to visit Lucio in prison and pray with her. On April 20, he and Moody implored Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz during a committee hearing to withdraw Lucio's death warrant.

At that hearing, Leach said Lucio's case has shaken his faith in capital punishment. "Whether you're for the death penalty or not, what you want to know more than anything … is that the system can be trusted, that it's fair, that it's reliable. And right now, I have as a policymaker severe and sincere questions and concerns about whether that's true."

Leach went on to refer to Lucio's case as the most troubling he's ever seen and possibly the most troubling in the state's history. On Monday, he was the one to reveal to Lucio that her life had been spared. A recording of the telephone call is circulating online; in it, Leach asks, "You haven't heard the news? The Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of your execution for Wednesday."

"Are you serious?" Lucio replies and breaks into sobs.

Lucio's story has gone viral in much the same way that Rodney Reed's did two years ago. By the time her execution was called off, her story had been spotlighted by CBS News, Fox News, and The New York Times and shared throughout social media. Much of the credit for the ubiquity of the coverage goes to the Innocence Project, the New York-based advocates who work to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates nationwide and who also defend Reed.

The group dove into Lucio's case at the beginning of the year, after her execution date was announced, and have pumped out a steady stream of press releases announcing new developments, sometimes more than one a day. It was their forensic experts who developed much of the new evidence, and they helped compile the 244-page petition that persuaded the CCA to stop the execution. They also helped draft motions that were filed in at least three other state and federal courts, asked Saenz to withdraw the execution order, and petitioned the BPP to recommend clemency for Lucio to Gov. Greg Abbott. Now the group will turn its attention to presenting the new evidence at the upcoming evidentiary hearing.

On Monday morning, before the execution was called off, Lucio presaged the struggle that will play out at that hearing. She met with Sabrina Van Tassel, the director of the 2020 film The State of Texas vs. Melissa, and asked Van Tassel to relay a message to her supporters: "If I get a new trial, I am ready for the fight. I am not the same person I was in that interrogation room. I would stand up for my rights today. I want other survivors of domestic violence and assault to stand up for their rights too."

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle