Updated on April 18, 2022, 7:30 p.m. ET: This article has been updated to reflect the latest news in this case.
Updated on March 25, 2022, 2:30 p.m. ET: This article has been updated to reflect the latest news in this case.
In 2008, Melissa Lucio was sentenced to death in Texas for the murder of her 2-year old daughter Mariah, who died two days after a tragic fall down a flight of stairs. In shock and grieving the loss of her baby — the youngest of her 12 children at the time — Ms. Lucio was taken into police custody and immediately blamed for her daughter’s death.
The State of Texas has scheduled Ms. Lucio’s execution for April 27, for a crime that never occurred. On Feb. 8, attorneys for Ms. Lucio filed a motion to withdraw or modify her looming execution date, and on March 22, her legal team filed a petition for clemency to the governor and Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. But Ms. Lucio’s life is still in jeopardy. On April 15, Ms. Lucio’s attorneys filed a habeas petition with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seeking a stay of her execution and arguing that she deserves a new trial because she is innocent and the State relied on false evidence,and hid favorable evidence, to convict her.
Read and share these key facts before Texas makes the irreversible mistake of killing an innocent woman.
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1. Mariah’s death was a tragic accident, not a murder.
Mariah fell down a flight of stairs while the family was moving homes on Feb. 15, 2007. The toddler had a mild physical disability that made her unstable while walking and prone to tripping. Two days later, she took a nap and didn’t wake up.
Instead of taking the steps to learn about Mariah’s health history and investigating the causes of her injuries, authorities immediately jumped to the conclusion that she had been murdered and, through a coercive interrogation, pressured Ms. Lucio to make a false statement.
Nearly 1 in 3 exonerated women were wrongly convicted of harming children or other loved ones in their care and over 70% were wrongly convicted of crimes that never took place at all — events that were accidents, deaths by suicide, or fabricated — according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations.
2. Melissa has maintained her innocence for over 14 years.
Ms. Lucio has maintained her innocence on death row for more than 14 years. During her interrogation, Ms. Lucio asserted her innocence more than 100 times, until she was manipulated into falsely taking responsibility for some of Mariah’s injuries by police officers. The interrogating officers refused to hear the truth: that Melissa did not, and would not, ever hurt her children.
3. Melissa was coercively interrogated by police two hours after her daughter died.
Detectives rushed to judgment and, just two hours after Mariah died, took Ms. Lucio in for questioning. During the interrogation, officers berated and intimidated Ms. Lucio, who was pregnant and in shock from the loss of her child, for five hours. They used coercive methods known to produce false confessions. Research has shown that survivors of sexual abuse and violence, like Ms. Lucio, are even more vulnerable to falsely confessing under such coercive conditions. And experts who have reviewed Ms. Lucio’s case, including her interrogation records, have concluded that Ms. Lucio “was relentlessly pressured and extensively manipulated” during the interrogation.
After several hours of interrogation, Ms. Lucio said, “I guess I did it,” and made other incriminating statements, to get the officers to end the interrogation. Her inadvertent statement was then characterized by the prosecution as a confession to murder. Two of the officers who interrogated Ms. Lucio were present at Mariah’s autopsy, leading to a biased autopsy process, and an incomplete investigation into Mariah’s health history and causes of her injuries and death.
4. False and misleading evidence was presented at Melissa’s trial.
At Ms. Lucio’s trial, the medical examiner testified that the bruises and injuries on Mariah’s body could only have been caused by abuse. However, pathologists who have reviewed the evidence have concluded that this testimony was false. Mariah’s autopsy showed signs of a blood coagulation disorder, which causes profuse bruising throughout the body. At the time of her death, Mariah was healing from an injury to her arm, which the medical examiner also said was a sign of abuse. However, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon who reviewed the evidence concluded that the medical examiner’s testimony was misleading and “there is nothing about” Mariah’s “fracture that indicates that it was the result of an intentional act or abuse” This was an extremely common type of injury among toddlers that can result from a fall from standing height.
The medical examiner also testified at trial that a mark on Mariah’s body were bite marks. Bite mark analysis has been wholly discredited since Ms. Lucio’s trial because it has no scientific basis. Studies have shown that even trained forensic dentists can’t agree whether or not an injury is a bite mark. In 2016, in recognition of the fact that bite mark evidence lacks scientific validity and following the exoneration of a man in Texas convicted based on faulty bite mark evidence, the Texas Forensic Science Commission recommended a state-wide moratorium on the use of bite mark evidence in criminal cases.
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5. The state presented no evidence that Melissa abused any of her children.
Thousands of pages of Child Protective Services records show that Ms. Lucio’s 12 children never said she was violent with them and no case workers noted signs of abuse. No physical evidence showed otherwise.
“The State presented no physical evidence or witness testimony establishing that Lucio abused Mariah or any of her children, let alone killed Mariah,” Judge Catharina Haynes wrote on behalf of the seven dissenting judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. “The jury was deprived of key evidence to weigh: that is the point.”
Ms. Lucio struggled at times to provide for her family, but was a caring mother, who did her best given her incredibly difficult circumstances.
6. Melissa is a survivor of a lifetime of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Ms. Lucio is a survivor of life-long, repeated sexual assault and domestic violence. She was sexually abused by family members beginning at the age of 6.
Ms. Lucio endured abuse throughout her childhood and into her teenage years. At 16, she became a child bride to escape. However, Ms. Lucio’s husband perpetuated the cycle of abuse. Still a minor and unable to leave the abusive marriage, Ms. Lucio was trapped and developed a substance use problem. Her husband later abandoned her and their five children.
Ms. Lucio had nine more children, including Mariah. Her next partner, who was also abusive, repeatedly raped her, and threatened to kill her. A psychologist who reviewed recent testing of Melissa said that Melissa has “highly abnormal” levels of vulnerability to police coercion because of her background.
7. The jury did not hear Melissa’s defense and some of her jurors are calling for a new trial.
On April 12, attorneys for Melissa filed a supplemental clemency application including a new declaration from a fifth juror — Melissa’s jury foreperson — who joins the calls of four other jurors and the alternate to halt Melissa’s pending execution or grant her a new trial where new evidence of her innocence can be considered.
“I am now convinced that the jury got it wrong and I know that there is too much doubt to execute Lucio. If I could take back my vote, I would,” Johnny Galvan Jr., one of the jurors in Ms. Lucio’s case, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle.
In particular, the jury never learned about the extent of Ms. Lucio’s history of child sexual abuse and domestic violence and how it shaped her reactions immediately following her daughter’s death. The trial court prohibited this testimony but allowed the Texas Ranger who coerced Ms. Lucio’s incriminating statement to testify, falsely, for the prosecution that Ms. Lucio’s slumped posture, passivity, and failure to make eye contact told him that she was guilty.
Without that context, the jury was undoubtedly swayed by Ms. Lucio’s statement and the Texas Ranger’s testimony about her demeanor during the interrogation.
The omission of this crucial evidence was particularly damaging because the prosecution had a weak case for capital murder, and an even weaker case for a death sentence. Ms. Lucio had no prior record of violence.
8. Cameron County D.A. Armando Villalobos was running for re-election and seeking a “win,” and is now serving a 13-year federal prison sentence for bribery and extortion.
Lacking solid physical evidence, Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos presented Ms. Lucio’s conciliatory statement to the jury as a “confession” to homicide and sought the death penalty.
At the time, Mr. Villalobos was seeking re-election, and came under fire for failing to thoroughly investigate or prosecute more than 100 previous allegations of child abuse. Ahead of the election, Mr. Villalobos sought to make an example in Ms. Lucio’s case, which helped him appear “tough on crime.” Today, the former district attorney is serving a 13-year federal prison sentence for bribery and extortion.
9. Melissa’s case has all the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction built upon a false confession.
Nearly all proven false confession cases have the following three things in common:
- An innocent person is misclassified as a guilty suspect
- Police coerce an innocent person into falsely incriminating themselves
- Police “contaminate” the person’s statement — meaning they feed the innocent person crime facts or a specific narrative of guilt. There is now evidence that all three of these things happened in Ms. Lucio’s case.
As soon as police officers encountered Ms. Lucio, they misclassified her response to the grief and shock of her daughter’s death as indicative of guilt. The officers relied on their presumptions about how a mother “should” act in this tragic scenario and their “gut-feeling, without a thorough forensic examination of the evidence” to draw an unscientific “presumption of guilt,” which then created “tunnel vision” of investigators and the interrogating officers. Officers used powerfully manipulative techniques — many of which rise to the level of “risk factors” for false confession — to coerce Ms. Lucio to incriminate herself.
What we know today — which we didn’t know 15 years ago — is that survivors of significant trauma and domestic abuse, like Ms. Lucio, are particularly vulnerable to the coercive police interrogation that Ms. Lucio endured for over five hours. As experts explain, “particularly when wielded by male police officers” the type of interrogation used against Ms. Lucio “simply recapitulates the psychodynamics of domestic abuse.” So, it makes sense that women, like Ms. Lucio, who learned to survive domestic abuse by “accommodating and conforming to the wishes of the violent partner” will likewise accommodate and conform to the demands of a threatening, armed male police officer in the interrogation room.
Officers contaminated the “confession” by repeatedly showing Ms. Lucio photographs of relevant evidence and suggesting certain words and facts, which she ultimately parroted back to the officers. As two experts on false confessions have determined, due to the officers’ tactics and Ms. Lucio’s vulnerability, her incriminating statements are not a reliable “confession” of her guilt, but rather are “a regurgitation of information relayed to her from investigators throughout the interrogation.” Lucio Successor Writ Application, at 136 (quoting David Thompson’s Expert Report).
10. There is widespread — and growing — support for clemency for Melissa across Texas
To date, over 100 bipartisan Texas lawmakers signed letters urging the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend clemency for Melissa. Hundreds of anti-domestic violence/sexual assault organizations and 18 Texas exonerees have voiced support for clemency for Ms. Lucio. More than 130 Baptist, Evangelical and Catholic faith leaders in Texas, including the executive director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas and the director of the Rio Grande Valley Baptist Association, support clemency for Ms. Lucio. Eighty-three Texas legislators from both sides of the aisle have signed a letter urging the governor and Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles to grant Ms. Lucio clemency. And 30 groups that work on behalf of the Latinx community in Texas have said they support clemency, too. More are learning about Ms. Lucio’s case and advocating for her each day.
Speak out before Texas makes an irreversible mistake — time is running out.
The Cameron County’s new district attorney, the courts, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and Gov. Abbott must undertake a meaningful review of Ms. Lucio’s innocence claim, the coercive tactics used in her interrogation, and the tragic circumstances of Mariah’s accidental death, before an irreversible injustice occurs.
- Call Gov. Abbott and the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
- Add your name to stop the execution.
- Make sure everyone on Twitter knows her name: Tweet now
- Use this social media toolkit to spread the word on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
If you have experienced sexual abuse and want to speak to someone, call the free and confidential National Sexual Assault hotline (1-800-656-HOPE or 1-800-656-4673). You can also receive help via online.rainn.org, which is available 24/7.