Texas lawmaker would support death penalty moratorium in the wake of Lucio case

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Texas state Rep. Jeff Leach, who led a bipartisan effort in the legislature to commute Melissa Lucio’s death sentence last month, told the host of the WFAA television public affairs program, “Inside Texas Politics with Jason Whitely,” that he would support a moratorium on all executions in Texas.

“Right now, going through what I just went through and seeing what I just saw, I would,” Leach told Whitely. “My trust in the system is shaky,”

On April 25, 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.

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, who was pregnant with twins and already the mother of 12 children at the time of Mariah’s death, had no record of violence, and thousands of pages of reports by Child Protective Services had never indicated that she abused her children. Nevertheless, armed male investigators subjected her to a five-hour, late-night aggressive interrogation 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.)

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.

Leach, a Republican, is the chair of the Criminal Justice Reform and the Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committees. He said he plans to hold hearings over the next few months, including prosecutors and defense attorneys, legal experts, and law enforcement for assistance in drafting the “right reforms.”

Some of those reforms they’ll consider, Leach told Whitely, will include law enforcement’s interrogation tactics and criminal prosecution practices. 

“We’ve got to look at every part of our system. And Melissa’s case, where the system failed her at every turn, is a great example of that,” he told WFAA.

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