Two days before Lucio was scheduled to be executed, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (the equivalent of a state supreme court) issued a stay. It ordered a county district court to consider new evidence of her innocence in the 2007 death of her daughter, Mariah.
“I am grateful the court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in my heart today and always,” Lucio said in a statement posted on the Innocence Project’s website.
“All of the new evidence of her innocence has never before been considered by any court. The court’s stay allows us to continue fighting alongside Melissa to overturn her wrongful conviction,” the Innocence Project’s director of special litigation, Vanessa Potkin, one of Lucio’s lawyers, also posted.
The campaign to save Lucio’s life was nationwide. It included anti-domestic violence groups, criminal justice advocates, celebrities, people of faith, Latino organizations, exonerees — including women who had also been falsely convicted of killing their children — and even a bipartisan majority of legislators in the Texas House.
Lucio, now 53, was arrested in 2007 for the murder of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah, despite forensic and eyewitness evidence that her daughter died from a head injury she suffered in a fall down steep stairs. It wasn’t the first time Mariah had fallen; she had a mild physical disability that made her unstable when walking and had fallen on several other occasions. Her injuries didn’t seem serious, but two days after the fall, she lay down for a nap and didn’t wake up.
Lucio was pregnant with twins and already the mother of 12 children at the time of Mariah’s death. She had no record of violence, and thousands of pages of reports by Child Protective Services had never indicated that she abused her children. Nevertheless, she was subjected to a five-hour, late-night aggressive interrogation by armed male investigators that didn’t end until she broke down and told them what they wanted to hear: “I guess I did it. I’m responsible.”
Armed with her false confession, then-Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, up for reelection, prosecuted Lucio for capital murder. (Villalobos is now serving a 13-year federal prison sentence for bribery and extortion.)
A psychologist and a social worker interviewed Lucio, and her family members, studied police reports, and examined thousands of pages of protective services records. They administered psychological tests and consulted the scientific literature on women who survived longtime abuse and women who killed their children. They concluded that Lucio’s response to the interrogation showed clear symptoms of traumatic abuse and that she had nothing in common with women who killed their children. But the prosecution argued for the exclusion of the experts’ testimony, and the court agreed, depriving Lucio of the only means she had of explaining why she took responsibility for her daughter’s death.
Lucio’s trial attorneys were reportedly ill-prepared for the penalty phase of her trial. As a result, the jury never heard the extent of Lucio’s history of child sexual abuse and domestic violence and how it affected her behavior after Mariah’s death. The jury found Lucio guilty of capital murder.
On appeal, an unanimous panel of three federal judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Lucio was denied her constitutional right to present a meaningful defense. By denying her the right to explain her incriminating statements during the interrogation, the judges said, she could not offer the most significant evidence in the case since there was no physical evidence or witness testimony establishing that Lucio abused Mariah or any of her children, let alone killed Mariah.
But Texas appealed the ruling to the full 17-member Fifth Circuit. Ten of 17 judges agreed that excluding the psychologist’s testimony skewed the evidence against Lucio. Still, three of the 10 joined seven other judges in holding that the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act barred relief for Lucio.
Seven judges dissented from the opinion denying relief for Lucio, with four writing separate dissenting opinions to express their outrage.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied her appeal in October.
Last month, lawyers for Melissa Lucio submitted a clemency application to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole. And a bipartisan majority of legislators in the Texas House asked state officials to halt her execution.
And this week, Texas’ highest court took a significant step in ending Melissa Lucio’s long journey through a cruel, broken, unfair, and racist justice system.