Widespread Call for Clemency from Hundreds of Texas Anti-Domestic Violence Groups, Baptists, Evangelicals and Catholics, Latino Organizations, and Exonerees; Five Jurors File Declarations Expressing Support for Relief
(Austin, TX — March 22, 2022) Today, attorneys for Melissa Lucio submitted an application for clemency to Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. New evidence in the application that the jury never heard shows that Ms. Lucio, a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, was wrongly convicted and condemned to die for the accidental death of her daughter, Mariah. Ms. Lucio is scheduled for execution on April 27, 2022.
The application includes the declarations of seven nationally recognized experts, including scientists and forensic experts, who have reviewed the evidence and concluded that Ms. Lucio’s conviction was based upon (1) an unreliable “confession” that is essentially a mere “regurgitation” of facts and words officers fed to her during the five-hour interrogation, and (2) unscientific, false evidence that misled the jury into believing that Mariah must have been killed by physical abuse, when the evidence is actually consistent with a conclusion that Mariah died from medical complications after a fall. The application also documents that Ms. Lucio asserted her innocence more than 100 times over five hours of the coercive interrogation.
“Mariah died from medical complications after an accidental fall. She was not murdered.”
In addition to the new forensic analyses, today’s application includes declarations from four jurors stating they have grave concerns about evidence withheld from them at Ms. Lucio’s capital trial and would support relief. An additional juror, an alternate who heard the evidence, but did not join deliberations, also submitted a declaration supporting relief for Ms. Lucio.
Hundreds of Texas anti-domestic violence groups, Baptist, Evangelical and Catholic leaders, Latino organizations, exonerees of wrongful convictions, and Ms. Lucio’s children also filed letters urging the Board and the Governor to grant Ms. Lucio clemency. (See Exhibits attached to application.)
“Based on a rush to judgement and a biased and inadequate death investigation, the State extracted an unreliable ‘confession’ and used false scientific evidence to convict Melissa Lucio of a crime she did not commit and in fact never occurred. What we know today is this: Mariah died from medical complications after an accidental fall. She was not murdered,” said Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, and one of Ms. Lucio’s attorneys.
Ms. Lucio’s Application for the Commutation of Death Sentence to a Lesser Penalty or, in the Alternative, a 120-Reprieve from Execution can be viewed here:
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A Rush to Judgement After a Tragedy
On February 15, 2007, as Ms. Lucio was moving her family to a new home, Mariah fell down a steep outdoor staircase leading to their apartment. After the fall, Mariah’s injuries did not appear life-threatening, but two days later she fell asleep on her parents’ bed and did not wake up. Mariah had physical disabilities that made her walking unstable and she had a history of falls, including a recent fall at a preschool program where she lost consciousness. At the time of her arrest, Ms. Lucio had no history of abusing her children or violence of any kind. (App. at pp. 2, 10-12.)
Two hours after Mariah’s death, Ms. Lucio — grieving and in shock — was hauled into an interrogation room where, for over five hours, armed, male police officers stood over her, yelled at her, threatened her, berated her parenting, and repeatedly refused to accept anything less than an admission to causing her daughter’s death. Ms. Lucio was especially vulnerable to the aggressive, intimidating, and psychologically manipulative interrogation tactics of the police and male authority figures due to her history of abuse, trauma, low IQ, and abnormally high levels of suggestibility and compliance. (App. at pp. 15-17.)
After hours of continuous interrogation, Ms. Lucio acquiesced, followed their directions, and gave in to their demands. She was sleep-deprived — it was 3:00 in the morning by then — and pregnant with twins, emotionally and physically exhausted by the threats and manipulation. (App. at pp. 15-17, 39.)
“I think if I heard this evidence I may have decided differently.”
Two experts on false confessions (including police trainer and interrogation expert, David Thompson, and Dr. Gisli Gudjonsson, one of the world’s leading experts on false confessions) have analyzed Ms. Lucio’s interrogation and concluded that her admissions are “unreliable” and simply a “regurgitation” of the words and facts that interrogators fed to her throughout a highly coercive interrogation process. (App. at pp. 16, 39-42.)
Lacking physical evidence or eyewitnesses connecting Ms. Lucio to Mariah’s death, Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos — who is now serving a 13-year federal sentence for bribery and extortion — characterized Ms. Lucio acquiescence during the interrogation as a “confession” to murder. (App. at p. 19.)
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Mariah’s Death Was Declared A Murder Before the Autopsy Even Began
The application states: “[The State’s Medical Examiner] Dr. Farley, who was told going into autopsy that Ms. Lucio had ‘confessed’ to abusing Mariah, and who was accompanied in the autopsy suite by two of the interrogating officers, assumed everything she observed was evidence of abuse and ignored all evidence to the contrary.” (App. at p. 20.)
At Ms. Lucio’s trial, the jury was told that Mariah’s injuries could only be explained by child abuse and complications from an accidental fall were impossible. That testimony was false. Dr. Farley failed in her duty to rule out nonviolent medical explanations for Mariah’s condition before rushing to agree with law enforcement’s judgment of abuse. (App. at pp. 19-20, 28.)
Seven experts, including nationally recognized medical and forensic scientists, have now reviewed the evidence in Ms. Lucio’s case. Dr. Michael Laposata, the chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, concluded that at the time of her death Mariah had indications of Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC), a disorder that causes extensive bruising following a head trauma, like the injury that Mariah suffered from her fall, or an infection. (App. at p. 21.) As Dr. Laposata stated in his declaration, DIC can cause profound bruising throughout the body with no trauma whatsoever. “In patients with DIC, routine handling at home or in a hospital setting can cause significant bruising. It is not possible to tell the difference between a bruise from DIC and a bruise from abuse.” (Exhibit 6 at p. 2.)
“[Dr. Farley] failed to review any of Mariah’s medical history to look for any explanation or contributing cause to her injuries.”
Dr. Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist, concluded that Mariah’s autopsy indicates she was in DIC at the time of her death. Her records also show she had a persistent high fever, and was sufficiently dehydrated to experience shock. The application states: “[S]teeped in extrinsic, biasing information, [Dr. Farley] failed to review any of Mariah’s medical history to look for any explanation or contributing cause to her injuries, conduct any basic laboratory tests to diagnose a coagulation disorder, or even perform simple testing to confirm the presence of infection or sepsis.” (App. at p. 28.)
Four jurors who served on the jury that sentenced Ms. Lucio to die and one alternate juror have expressed grave concerns about the evidence that they were not allowed to hear. Juror Johnny Galvan stated that “[t]he fact that you can’t pinpoint what caused Mariah’s death means that [Melissa] shouldn’t be executed.” Juror Alejandro Saldivar stated, “I think if I heard this evidence I may have decided differently.” (App. at p. 3.)
Ms. Lucio’s Statements Have the Hallmarks of a False Confession
Over five hours, Ms. Lucio asserted her innocence 86 times verbally and 35 times non-verbally (shaking her head), but police refused to accept any response that was not an admission of guilt—suggesting to Ms. Lucio that the interrogation would not stop unless she told them what they wanted to hear. (App. at p. 15.) While the vast majority of interrogations last 30 minutes to up to two hours, interrogations that elicit confessions later proven false last much longer. “[T]he length of Melissa’s nighttime interrogation further increased the risk that she would falsely incriminate herself.” (App at pp. 16, 36-37.)
The interrogating officers used manipulative, psychological techniques known to cause false confessions and disregarded Ms. Lucio’s multiple vulnerabilities, including her shock and grief over her daughter’s death hours earlier, physical and emotional exhaustion, sleep deprivation, her high levels of suggestibility and compliance, and low IQ. (App. at pp. 37-39.) According to experts, Ms. Lucio’s lifetime of sexual abuse, starting at six years old, and domestic violence at the hands of two partners, made her extremely vulnerable and susceptible to falsely confessing during an interrogation by male police officers, some armed, and one impliedly threatening to “beat [her] half to death like that little child was beat.” (App. at pp. 35, 42-47.)
“[T]he length of Melissa’s nighttime interrogation further increased the risk that she would falsely incriminate herself.”
Doctor Gisli Gudjonsson, one of the world’s leading experts in false confessions, and David Thompson, an expert from one of the nation’s top interrogation training schools, have reviewed the record of Ms. Lucio’s case and determined that Ms. Lucio “was relentlessly pressured and extensively manipulated” throughout the many hours of interrogation and her statements bear the hallmarks of a coerced-compliant false confession. (App. at pp. 15-16.) Dr. Gudjonsson concluded that Melissa’s case presents a “very high” risk of false confession and in his “extensive forensic evaluation of cases of disputed confessions internationally, the number, severity, and combination of the risk factors involved during the lengthy interrogation are exceptional.” (App. at 16.) He further explained Ms. Lucio’s “history of negative/traumatic life events is associated with increased level of suggestibility, compliance, and false confession . . . because trauma significantly reduces the resilience of the trauma victims to cope with interrogative pressure.” (App. at p. 37.)
Mr. Thompson noted, “Repetitive threats combined with promises or suggestions of leniency are known to incentivize innocent subjects to confess. These tactics, alongside Ms. Lucio’s susceptibility and her state of mind in a lengthy interrogation shortly after her daughter’s death, are known to have a substantial psychological impact on a subject’s decision-making” and found her statements are a result of fact-feeding or other tactics used by investigators. (Exhibit 11 at pp. 5-6.)
False confessions elicited by guilt-presumptive police interrogations—like the interrogation at issue here—are a primary cause of wrongful conviction in the United States. Of the 67 women listed on the National Registry of Exonerations who were exonerated after a murder conviction, over one quarter (17/67) involved false confessions and nearly one-third (20/67) involved child victims.
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Widespread Support Across Texas for Clemency
Alarmed by the prospect of executing an innocent woman, who is a lifelong survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence, a wide and diverse array of Texans are urging the Governor and the Board to grant Ms. Lucio clemency, including:
- 225 anti-domestic violence/sexual assault organizations from Texas and across the country;
- Over 130 Baptist, Evangelical and Catholic faith leaders in Texas, including more than 50 Baptist leaders, the Executive Director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas, and the Director of the Rio Grande Valley Baptist Association;
- More than 30 groups that work on behalf of Latinos in Texas and across the U.S., including the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL);
- Eighteen people wrongfully convicted of a crime in a Texas state court, including Hannah Overton and Michael Morton; and
- Twenty-six death row exonerees, including two from Texas.
More than 100,000 people, including more than 20,000 in Texas, have signed an Innocence Project petition urging clemency for Ms. Lucio.
Ms. Lucio’s children are also urging the Governor and the Board not to execute their mother. They are Mariah’s brothers and sisters and Texas law requires that their wishes be taken into account. (App. at pp. 1-2, 49-51.)
The faith leaders wrote to the Governor and the Board:
In this case, you have an extraordinary opportunity to show compassion for a woman and a family that has already suffered greatly, first from the tragic death of Mariah and then by the incarceration of Ms. Lucio. Through the clemency process, you alone can compensate for the rigidities of the judicial system, which has been unable to correct this injustice despite support from numerous federal judges. . . . In accordance with the shared values of our diverse religious and faith traditions and in the name of mercy, we respectfully urge you to commute her death sentence. (App. at p. 6.)
“In Melissa’s case, the legal system’s failure to acknowledge the effects of child sexual abuse and domestic violence led directly to the conviction and death sentence of an innocent woman. Meanwhile, her abusive partner is now a free man. This is why Texans who have spent their lives helping survivors of gender-based violence are pleading with the Board and the Governor to grant clemency to Melissa Lucio,” said Professor Sandra Babock, director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, and one of Ms. Lucio’s attorneys.