On February 17, 2007, paramedics in Harlingen, Texas, responded to a call at an apartment shared by Melissa Lucio and her husband, Robert Alvarez. The EMTs found the couple’s two-year-old daughter, Mariah, unresponsive and, according to police reports, covered with bruises, scratches, bite marks, and other injuries in various stages of healing. Mariah was taken to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead in the emergency room.
The police were notified and jumped to the immediate conclusion that Mariah’s injuries resulted from child abuse. Melissa, the mother of 14 children and pregnant with twins, was taken into custody that night. The police then subjected her to a grueling videotaped interrogation during which Melissa stated 100 times that she did not kill her child.
Mother Browbeaten Into Admission
After an aggressive five-hour interrogation, Melissa was finally browbeaten into an admission that “I guess I did it” concerning some of the child’s injuries. The police took that coerced admission as a “murder confession.”
Despite being told by Melissa and other family members that Mariah had fallen down the stairs, Cameron County prosecutors sought and secured an indictment for capital murder against Lucio.
The following year, in July 2008, Melissa Lucio was convicted and sentenced to death. The prosecution offered no physical or other forensic evidence that Mariah was beaten to death. The only evidence the prosecution presented that Melissa was responsible for the death of Mariah was the opinion of several experts that the child had been the victim of child abuse and died from blunt force trauma to the head.
Court Prevents Defense Experts from Testifying
Melissa’s defense team conceded that she may have been responsible for “injuries to a child” but argued the child died from falling down the stairs. However, the trial court precluded the defense from being able to present evidence from two experts whose testimony would have supported that “accidental death” defense.
In 2019, a unanimous three-judge penal of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Lucio’s conviction and sentence, agreeing with her defense team’s argument that the trial court had unconstitutionally denied her the guaranteed right to present “a complete defense.”
The state sought and secured an en banc hearing before the entire court of appeals—and, on February 9, 2021, the en banc court overturned the three-judge panel decision and, in a 10-7 ruling, reinstated Lucio’s conviction and death sentence. The court said Lucio’s capital conviction had to be upheld for “procedural reasons” under the federal Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Case
The U.S. Supreme Court, on October 21, 2021, refused to hear the case, letting the Fifth Circuit en banc decision stand.
That Supreme Court decision set the stage for Lucio’s impending April 27 execution. Lucio would be the first Latina woman executed by Texas and the 17th woman executed in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
The Lucio case has drawn national and international media attention due to efforts by the Innocence Project, family members, and anti-death penalty supporters who have made a compelling case of innocence on her behalf.
Jurors Now Express Serious Doubts of Guilt
These efforts have been given credence by three of Lucio’s trial jurors and one alternate who have expressed serious doubts about her conviction because they were denied the opportunity to hear her complete defense.
Melissa’s defense team has now petitioned the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to recommend clemency in her case. Lucio’s clemency efforts are supported by 90 bipartisan members of the Texas Legislature. These lawmakers have also urged Gov. Greg Abbott to issue a one-time 30-day reprieve as the law grants him the authority to do.
The Melissa Lucio case poses a serious political dilemma for both the board of pardons and the governor.
In 2015, the boards of pardons recommended that Abbott sign off on a recommendation that the death sentence of Robert Whitaker, who took part in the contract murder of his mother and brother, be commuted to life imprisonment. Abbott granted clemency to Whitaker at the emotional behest of the man’s father, who said his son’s execution would only traumatize the Whitaker family a second time.
Lucio’s family members and supporters are making the same argument to the board of pardons and the governor.
In a letter to the board and the governor, Lucio’s children begged: “Please allow us to reconcile with Mariah’s death and remember her without fresh pain, anguish, and grief. Please spare the life of our mother.”
Therein lays the political dilemma facing the entire state of Texas.
There are many factors begging for executive clemency in the Lucio case, above and beyond her compelling case for innocence. Still, none are quite as significant as a white male death row inmate who admittedly killed his mother and brother in cold blood is entitled to state mercy, while a poor Latina mother who has steadfastly maintained her innocence for the murder of her daughter is not.