The Texas case of Melissa Lucio is a terrible miscarriage of justice

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Texas has executed at least five men who were very likely innocent, according to a recent report by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. And of the 186 men and women who were exonerated after being sentenced to death since 1973 in the U.S., 16 were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

So it’s not all that surprising, but still horrifying, that Melissa Lucio will become the sixth likely innocent person executed by Texas if the state goes ahead with its plan to execute her on April 27.

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. This 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, 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.”

“Everyone has a breaking point. Anyone can be convinced to confess, to lie. And it’s not only that they can, but they do it at great risk to their future. It’s deeply fascinating and deeply troubling,” University of San Francisco Law and Psychology Professor Richard A. Leo, who is an expert on false confessions, police interrogation practices, psychological coercion, and the wrongful conviction of the innocent, says. Police-induced false confessions are a leading cause of wrongful conviction, he notes.

And Lucio was especially vulnerable because of her background. “As a survivor of lifelong sexual abuse and domestic violence, Melissa was especially vulnerable to police coercion, but at trial, she was prevented from presenting any evidence that would have explained why she falsely confessed during the interrogation,” the Innocence Project,  says.

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 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, and 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.

A unanimous three-judge panel of federal judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Lucio was denied her constitutional right to present a meaningful defense. The court ruled that providing an explanation for her incriminating statements during the interrogation, which she was not permitted to do, was 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 the exclusion of the psychologist’s testimony skewed the evidence against Lucio, but 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 Lucio’s appeal in October.

Texas has set her execution date for April 27.

(The Innocence Project has posted a petition asking Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to review Melissa Lucio’s case. You can sign the petition here.)

 

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