Who is Melissa Lucio?
Melissa Lucio is a 53-year-old Texan who has been on death row in the state since a 2008 conviction.
Lucio has been in prison after a jury found her guilty of the murder of her 2-year-old daughter Mariah. But advocates say Lucio was not given a fair trial and not all evidence was presented.
On Monday, April 25, her execution was stayed to give a lower court time to review further evidence.
What crime was Melissa Lucio convicted of committing?
According to NBC News, prosecutors made the case that Lucio had abused and beaten her 2-year-old daughter Mariah, who died Feb.17, 2007.
Lucio professed innocence more than 100 times during a 5-hour interrogation by police officers, according to the Innocence Project, which has fought to keep Lucio from being executed.
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Her attorneys and advocates believe the interrogation, just two hours after Mariah’s death, resulted in a coerced confession.
Eventually, Lucio told investigators "I guess I did it," and made other incriminating statements.
“The officers appeared to approach the questioning with a presumption of her guilt and repeatedly rejected Ms. Lucio’s insistence on innocence and Ms. Lucio’s explanation for her daughter’s injuries,” The Innocence Project wrote to U.S. Supreme Court justices in a 2021 amicus brief.
Lucio is a survivor of abuse and that may have made her more likely to provide a coerced confession, interrogation experts cited in her clemency application say.
“Coerced confessions are actually one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions,” says Georgia defense attorney and Emory University law professor Molly Parmer. “Although it sounds like it would be impossible to say that you did something you didn’t do, it happens all the time.”
The team fighting for Lucio said the interrogation broke her down until she began “regurgitating” what the investigators were telling her. Then that confession became a key piece of the trial while other evidence was not brought to light.
“Another piece of evidence that was not shared with jurors in this case were years and years of Child Protective Services records,” Parmer said. “Because she lived in poverty and was struggling and she had this involvement with Child Protective Services. And none of those records showed she ever abused any of her 14 children.”
If the conviction was wrong, what happened to 2-year-old Mariah?
This is how Lucio’s legal team explains it: Mariah had a condition where her feet were turned inward, and she often lost her balance and fell down.
Then, on Feb. 15, 2007, Lucio and her family were preparing for a move to a new apartment. She spent the morning packing and getting some of her children ready for school while trying to keep an eye on Mariah.
At some point while Lucio was packing, attorneys say, Mariah made her way outside and fell down the stairs exiting the second-floor apartment. When Lucio realized Mariah was not in the apartment, she checked outside and found Mariah at the bottom of the stairs.
Lucio repeatedly told officers that Mariah fell down the stairs and suffered multiple injuries, including a head injury. She was pronounced dead two days later after she did not wake up from a nap.
What happened with Lucio’s daughter’s autopsy?
Attorneys say investigators told the medical examiner that Lucio had already confessed. That influenced the examiner’s conclusions in their autopsy of Mariah.
The medical examiner later told the jury that bruises on Mariah could only be explained by child abuse, which attorneys and experts in Lucio’s camp say is false.
There were signs Mariah may have suffered from a condition called disseminated intravascular coagulation, where blood clots form throughout the body. This condition is common in patients who have suffered head trauma, and can result in bruises forming elsewhere on the body. Police and prosecutors claimed bruises on Mariah’s body were evidence of abuse.
Who has advocated for Lucio’s death sentence to be revoked?
Also, five jurors from Lucio’s trial issued statements supporting giving her another chance. Multiple jurors have been quoted saying they might not have convicted Lucio if they had seen additional medical evidence.
What is the latest in the case?
Lucio was scheduled to be executed Wednesday, April 27 — but then the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay (meaning a pause, or stop) of the execution. That appeals court has ordered a trial court to review new evidence in Lucio’s case.
In a statement Monday, Lucio thanked God for giving her another chance to live and prove her case, and said she was “deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf.”
The stay of execution is a long way from exoneration.
“We are far from the finish line when it comes to her case and the potential for her to be executed,” Parmer said.
The 138th Judicial District Court of Cameron County, Texas, will now have to review the new evidence.