If you’ve tuned into the news in recent weeks, you may have heard the name Melissa Lucio pop up once or twice. Ms. Lucio, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, received a stay of execution on April 25, 2022—two days before her scheduled execution. In 2008, Ms. Lucio was convicted of killing her two-year old daughter, Mariah Alvarez.

Whether or not you believe that Ms. Lucio is guilty, her story is a cautionary tale of the unwieldy power of police and pitfalls underlying our justice system.

A Troubled Past

Ms. Lucio was born on June 18, 1969 in Lubbock, Texas. Her father died shortly after her birth, leaving her mother to care for Ms. Lucio and her siblings. When she was about three or four years old, Ms. Lucio’s mother moved their family to the Rio Grande Valley, which is where she grew up.

Beginning at six, Ms. Lucio was subjected to sexual abuse by her male relatives. At sixteen years old, as a means to escape the perpetual abuse, she married Guadalupe Lucio and together they had five children. Yet, Guadalupe was not a kind-hearted loving husband. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and was physically and emotionally abusive towards Ms. Lucio.

Guadalupe eventually abandoned Ms. Lucio and their children, leaving her to fend for herself. Ms. Lucio quickly jumped into a relationship with Robert Alvarez, but he too, was physically abusive. Ms. Lucio and Robert had seven children together, including Mariah who was born in September 2004.

Coercive Police Tactics

On February 15, 2007, Mariah fell down a flight of stairs, but did not appear injured after the fall. Two days later, Ms. Lucio put Mariah down for a nap and when she did not wake up, Mariah was immediately rushed to the hospital. There, Mariah was pronounced dead.

Officers wasted no time taking Ms. Lucio in for questioning. For more than five hours, Ms. Lucio was interrogated by police for causing Mariah’s death. Ms. Lucio repeatedly maintained her innocence, denying their allegations over one-hundred times. Regardless, the interview continued until 3 a.m. and only stopped when Ms. Lucio reluctantly told police, “I guess I did it.”

An Un-Fair Trial

Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, who was also seeking reelection, sought the death penalty in Ms. Lucio’s case. During trial, the D.A. described Ms. Lucio’s statements as amounting to a confession. Additionally, she was depicted as an abusive, drug addicted mother that lacked compassion for her own children.

The defense failed to fully investigate Ms. Lucio’s upbringing, and the jury never learned about her extensive history of abuse. Moreover, the court excluded expert testimony about how Ms. Lucio’s experiences would have influenced her response to police interrogation.

In the end, Ms. Lucio was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death.

Post-Conviction Proceedings

Ms. Lucio immediately appealed her conviction, which was subsequently denied. But in 2019, a panel of three federal judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that Ms. Lucio was denied the right to present “a meaningful defense.” This victory was short-lived, as the decision was overturned and Ms. Lucio remained on death row.

In August 2021, an amicus brief was filed on behalf of Ms. Lucio and argued that Ms. Lucio’s abusive past explains her subdued behavior and acquiescence during interrogation. Furthermore, the brief stated that exclusion of expert testimony on the effects of trauma “deprived Melissa of the only means she had of explaining that . . . she was innocent of her daughter’s murder.”

In January 2022, Cameron County officials signed an execution warrant for Lucio. Ms. Lucio then petitioned for clemency citing issues with her confession and the medical evidence. The petition also included declarations from five jurors who said they had concerns about the evidence that had been withheld during trial. In March 2022, eighty-three members of the Texas House of Representatives signed a letter to the Board of Pardons and Parolees and Governor Abbott, stating that executing Ms. Lucio would be “a miscarriage of justice.” On April 25, 2022 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution and ordered the 138th Judicial District Court to consider new evidence of Ms. Lucio’s innocence.  

No End in Sight

Ms. Lucio’s fight is far from over. Attorneys must now focus their efforts on procuring a new trial in her case, which will not be easy. For now, Ms. Lucio will continue to wait at the Texas Department of Corrections in Gatesville.

Whether or not you think Ms. Lucio is guilty is irrelevant. There’s a difference between thinking someone is guilty and actually finding them guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. This standard necessitates that if there is any doubt to a defendant’s guilt, no matter how slight, a conviction cannot stand. Does this mean that someone who is guilty can go free? Yes, it absolutely does. However, our principles of democracy have long heralded that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.”

Ms. Lucio’s story presents a sad and unfortunate reality for many people that are accused of crimes. The fact that in today’s modern society, we can convict and execute someone on circumstantial evidence and a coerced confession is beyond comprehension. This is a system that desperately needs change, both inside and out. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and representatives must do better for the very people they have vowed to protect. Without change, justice is just an empty promise.

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