Fourteen years ago, Melissa Lucio was sentenced to death for killing the youngest of her 12 children, Mariah, in Harlingen. She is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on April 27. Unless the courts or the governor intervene before then, she will become the first Latina woman to be put to death in Texas.
As the date draws closer, the outcry for clemency has reached fever pitch. Lucio’s lawyers have asked Governor Greg Abbott for a 120-day reprieve or to commute her sentence, citing evidence that was not presented to the jury. Eighty-three members of the Texas House of Representatives, including Republicans and Democrats, have petitioned the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to cancel the execution. On Tuesday, even reality television star Kim Kardashian—who has previously expressed support for Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed—joined the chorus of voices yelling, “stop.”
“She has been on death row for over 14 years for her daughter’s death that was a tragic accident,” Kardashian wrote on Twitter. “Her 2-year old daughter Mariah fell down a flight of stairs and two days later passed away while taking a nap. After she called for help, she was taken into custody by the police.”
Supporters of Lucio hope that the governor will respond to their pleas. The matter, now before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, could also be taken up by federal courts. A strong supporter of capital punishment, Governor Abbott has only granted clemency once before. Will he do so again for Melissa Lucio?
“I think she has a very strong case,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “While clemency is rarely granted, this case checks most of the boxes that governors are looking for.”
Clemency grants are rare in U.S. death penalty cases. On average, fewer than two defendants per year have been granted clemency since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. More than 1,500 executions have gone through during that time period.
But Dunham said Lucio’s case has three elements that have led to relief in a small subset of other cases: a false confession, newly revealed evidence of innocence, and the convicted person’s religious faith.
Indeed, Lucio’s lawyers have argued that the mother’s confession was coerced. On the night of Mariah’s death, a Texas Ranger interrogated Lucio for five hours during which she denied wrongdoing more than 100 times before finally capitulating: “What am I going to say? I- I’m responsible for it.”
“Based on a rush to judgment and a biased and inadequate death investigation, the State extracted an unreliable ‘confession’ and used false scientific evidence to convict Melissa Lucio of a crime she did not commit and in fact never occurred,” said Vanessa Potkin, one of Lucio’s attorneys, in a press release on March 22.
Lucio’s defense team has also argued that her history as a victim of domestic abuse, which the jury never heard about, may also have played a role in Lucio incriminating herself.
“A history of negative/traumatic life events is associated with increased levels of suggestibility, compliance, and false confession,” wrote Dr. Gisli Gudjonsson, a forensic psychologist and former detective, in the clemency application..
The filing further notes that important information about Mariah’s medical condition was never presented to the jury.
In the 2007 trial, the state medical examiner concluded that the bruises on Mariah’s body could only have come from abuse—not from a fall down the stairs, as the child’s family had said. But a subsequent review of Mariah’s autopsy report revealed that the examiner ignored crucial evidence: Mariah suffered from a blood coagulation disorder that causes profuse bruising. The child also had trouble walking, which made her prone to falling.
“What we know today is this: Mariah died from medical complications after an accidental fall,” Potkin said. “She was not murdered.”
Lucio’s religious faith is another factor that may make her case more compelling to the governor.
“Melissa is a person of deep faith and ministers to others—her children, her fellow inmates, her own spiritual advisor, even the prison wardens,” the clemency application notes.
Four members of the original jury and one alternate juror—who heard evidence but did not participate in the deliberations—submitted statements saying they would not have voted to convict had they been presented with that information. A single dissenting vote would have failed to have delivered the death sentence.
“It wasn’t until after the trial was over that troubling information was brought to light,” wrote juror Johnny Galvan in an op-ed called “I voted to sentence Melissa Lucio to death. I was wrong,” published April 3 by the Houston Chronicle. “If I had known all of this information, or even part of it, I would have stood by my vote for life no matter what anyone else on the jury said.”
Lucio’s family, too, has pleaded for leniency.
“If she was executed … I wouldn’t be able to function anymore,” wrote her son, Bobby Alvarez, as part of the application for clemency. “I have already been through enough trauma.”
Abbott has only granted clemency once in a death penalty case. Thomas “Bart” Whitaker was convicted in March 2007 of hiring someone to kill his family. The hitman shot Whitaker’s mother and brother to death, but his father survived the shooting. While awaiting his sentencing, Whitaker and his father reconciled. Citing his father’s wishes, Abbott commuted Whitaker’s death sentence to life in prison less than an hour before he was scheduled to be executed in 2018.