A growing list of family members, jurors, and politicians who are convinced of Melissa Lucio’s innocence in the death of her two-year-old son inspired the Cameron County DA to announce that he may step in regarding her execution, which is scheduled for April 27 (according to The Texas Tribune).
In fact, many believe Lucio is innocent and that her child’s death was an accident – not murder – to begin with.
This situation is yet another tragic case in which the vagaries of the criminal justice system are called into question. While your own criminal charge may be far less dramatic, seeking the professional legal counsel of an experienced Killeen criminal defense attorney is in your best interest.
The DA’s Role
While DA Luis Saenz was not the district attorney when Lucio was initially convicted, he did request the April 27, 2022 execution date and has the legal power to withdraw that date request.
At the heated legislative hearing at which a group of bipartisan lawmakers attempted to pull the brakes on the execution date, Saenz initially declined to do so. Saenz, however, remains firm about his stance in support of the legal process that convicted Lucio and that continues to uphold her death sentence.
During the course of the hearing, however, the DA shifted his position somewhat, telling the lawmakers that his intervention was likely unnecessary because he expected the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stop the execution – and that, if it did not, he would do so (though no further details were provided).
His exact words were, “If defendant Lucio does not get a stay by a certain day, then I will do what I have to do to stop it.”
Without any court motions or rulings, there is no specific evidence that Lucio’s execution will be stopped.
Outside the committee room where the legislators had argued for a stay, Lucio’s attorney remained dubious about the DA’s statement but said he would have to take his word for it. Following the hearing, Saenz's office could not be reached for a response. Jeff Leach, however, a Plano Republican who is a state representative and the chair of the interim Criminal Justice Reform Committee, made it clear that the lawmakers were committed to holding Saenz true to his word.
Leach confirmed that the DA’s taped comments mean, to his understanding, that if no stay or clemency is forthcoming, Saenz will step in by withdrawing his execution date request.
Since Lucio was convicted of her young daughter’s murder over 14 years ago, reasonable doubts have continued to hover. These doubts will not disappear with a cancellation of her execution date.
The doubt in question centers on whether or not the head trauma that proved fatal to Lucio’s two-year-old daughter might have been accidental – and if it was not, who inflicted the fatal head injury.
The case that ultimately convicted Lucio was predicated on what many consider a tainted confession that was obtained from a grieving and vulnerable mother after grueling hours of interrogation by the police.
To make matters more challenging, the judge in her trial barred the expert testimony that may have helped to explain why Lucio would confess to doing something she had not done. The fact remains, however, that false confessions are known to be all too real.
If Lucio’s execution were to proceed, she would become the first Latina to be executed under the State of Texas’s modern death penalty laws and the first woman to be executed in Texas since 2014. It is worth pointing out that the State of Texas has executed more women than any other state in the nation; as Lucio's execution date draws closer, serious concerns about the 53-year-old's potential innocence loom. The primary question is whether or not abuse or an accidental fall down the stairs caused the child’s death. At this point, there has been an international outcry to stop Lucio’s execution from all the following sources:
Former jurors from her trial
More than fifty percent of the Texas House of Representatives
Most believe that there are far too many problems with both the police investigation and Lucio’s trial to proceed with the execution prior to engaging in considerably more investigation.
The Foreperson on Lucio’s Jury
The foreperson on Lucio’s jury came out with the following statement to Lucio’s parole board:
The trial left me thinking Melissa Lucio was a monster, but now I see her as a human being who was made to seem evil because I didn’t have all the evidence I needed to make that decision. Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and for a new jury to hear that evidence.
Four additional jurors have also come forward to beseech the Governor and the parole board to stop Lucio's execution.
The Path Forward
The only way to halt her scheduled execution outside of either a motion from Saenz or the court’s intervention is if the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles either recommends a commutation of Lucio’s sentence from death to life or recommends extending the execution date for up to four months.
In either case, the Governor would have to accept the board's recommendation, and this is not expected until March 25. While the Governor also has the legal discretion to delay an execution for 30 days, Abbott has never exercised this power during his seven years as Governor.
The DA’s Comments
Prior to the legislative hearing in question. Saenz shared his stance on the Lucio case with the following:
Melissa Lucio has already thoroughly litigated the issues raised during her defense, including the theories that her statement was coerced and that her two-year-old daughter Mariah Alvarez fell down the stairs. The jury rejected both of these arguments. As officers of the court and servants of our community, we cannot allow the rule of law to be suspended and substituted by a court of public opinion.
For their part, state and federal courts have also rejected the petitions on Lucio’s behalf that have been forthcoming at each step in the appeals process – the intention of which is diminishing the possibility of people being executed for crimes they did not commit.
Lucio’s attorneys – along with the majority of judges who sit on a conservative federal court – maintain that the rejections in Lucio’s case highlight the expansive problems inherent to the death penalty overall and highlight exactly how difficult it is for our courts to overturn even very weak death-sentence convictions.
To put the matter into perspective, consider the following footnote from Lucio’s latest court denial, which was written by a judge of the conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (who was appointed by President Reagan) – To these eyes, this case is a systemic failure, producing a train of injustice which only the hand of the Governor can halt.
The 911 Call
When emergency medical professionals rushed to the apartment that Lucio shared with her common-law husband and 9 of her 12 children in 2007, it was in response to a 911 call from her family, who had found the two-year-old girl unresponsive in her bed.
The girl was not breathing, and the police determined that she was covered with bruises – in addition to having what they believed was a bite mark. A subsequent X-ray showed that one of her arms had suffered a recent break.
Later, the medical examiner declared the young girl's death a homicide caused by blunt-force head trauma. Since then, at least one pathologist who examined the available evidence questions the state’s definitive abuse and homicide findings.
The Police’s Findings
The signs that the police considered indicative of child abuse led them to believe that the young girl was murdered, and the fact that Lucio was the person who spent the most time with the girl at home alone made her the prime suspect in the case. The details shared by Lucio on the night of her toddler’s death include:
The young girl had fallen down the steps a few days prior at the apartment the family had just moved out of.
Lucio had not seen the fall and, therefore, did not know how many stairs were involved.
The two-year-old seemed fine at the time but gradually stopped eating and became listless.
Lucio – who was pregnant with twins at the time of her interrogation – continued to strongly deny all accusations of abuse.
Three Hours In
After Lucia had vehemently denied the accusations hurled at her by the team of police investigators for about three hours, she stopped. At this point, she began to voice agreement with the soft-spoken Texas Ranger, who leaned into her and offered reassurances (according to the interrogation video).
Lucio confirmed that she had spanked the child but did not believe the spanking could have caused the harm depicted in the photos the police forced her to view. When the Ranger moved on to suggest that Lucio had bitten the child, she shook her head but, when prodded a second time, said that she had.
After the police continued to suggest she’d spanked the child out of “frustration,” Lucio used the same term in her concession to the Ranger.
After strong, continued denials, Lucio also confessed to what the Ranger described as a pinch mark on the girl’s vulva. After the Ranger pushed her to “get it over with,” Lucio stared at the disturbing photo and responded with “I guess I did it,” and upon further inquiry, said she had “probably pinched her or something.”
Lucio, however, consistently denied having beaten her daughter across the head and denied hitting, knocking, or harming her head in any capacity.
Ultimately, the police and the state determined that Lucio’s confessions to the other abuses would provide a jury with the information it needed to infer she was guilty of inflicting the child’s fatal injuries. And they were not wrong.
The Texas Ranger who had moved Lucio to confess shared on the witness stand at her trial that he recognized her guilt immediately. Lucio sat quietly with her head down and did not ask for an attorney, and from this, the Ranger gleaned that she was guilty. In fact, he let the jury know her body language and overall demeanor convinced him that she was prepared to confess.
The attorneys who ultimately handled Lucio's appeals were alarmed by what they deemed coercive interrogation techniques. In fact, the National Registry of Exonerations finds that about 12 percent of those convictions ultimately deemed wrongful are at least partially predicated on false confessions (as reported by The Texas Tribune).
Experts in the field of false confessions maintain that once an investigator sets his or her mind on the guilt of the person being interrogated, a confession becomes the sole goal. The problem is that a hunch is not the same thing as facts.
To make matters worse in this case, collected evidence that was intended to help secure a match to the girl’s injuries, including dental molds, fingernail clippings, and a ring worn by Lucio, were never tested. In light of Lucio’s confession, the DA at the time determined that there was no reason to test this evidence.
It is worth noting that this DA later did time in a federal prison for corruption that amounted to accepting bribes while in office in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, which occurred during the same timeframe as Lucio’s case).
Reach Out to an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney Today
If you are facing a criminal charge of any kind – from the most minor to the most serious – defending your legal rights from the outset is paramount.
Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a formidable criminal defense attorney who recognizes how important a favorable case resolution is to you and your future and has the experience and legal skill to help.