‘I thank God for my life’: Melissa Lucio is granted 11th-hour stay of execution by Texas appeals court

‘I thank God for my life. I have always trusted in Him. I am grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence,’ Melissa Lucio said in a statement following the appeals court’s ruling

Rachel Sharp
Monday 25 April 2022 23:26 BST
Melissa Lucio sobs as she learns her life has been saved
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Melissa Lucio has been granted an 11th-hour stay of execution, just 48 hours before she was about to be put to death for a crime she says she didn’t commit.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution early on Monday afternoon and ordered the trial court to consider new evidence in her case after multiple experts cast doubt on her 2008 conviction and calls to save her grew from human rights advocates, celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Amanda Knox, and both Republican and Democratic state lawmakers.

Lucio, who has spent the last 14 years on death row for the 2007 murder of her daughter Mariah, learned that her life had been spared in an emotional phone call with state Rep Jeff Leach shortly after the decision was handed down.

In an audio clip shared online, the 53-year-old is heard gasping, sobbing and laughing all at once as she is overcome with emotion on hearing the news.

“You haven’t heard the news yet?” asks Rep Leach at the start of the audio.

“No, what happened?” Lucio responds.

“The Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of your execution for Wednesday,” the lawmaker tells her.

Lucio is heard gasping before saying: “Are you serious? Are you serious?”

Her voice breaks and she is heard laughing and sobbing with emotion. “When did this happen?” she cries.

“We just got word about 15 minutes ago,” he tells her.

“Oh my god!” she says, laughing. “That is wonderful! Oh my god!”

In a statement, Lucio later thanked God for saving her life and paid tribute to her late daughter Mariah who she said “is in my heart today and always”.

“I thank God for my life. I have always trusted in Him. I am grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence,” she said in a statement.

“Mariah is in my heart today and always. I am grateful to have more days to be a mother to my children and a grandmother to my grandchildren. I will use my time to help bring them to Christ.”

The 53-year-old also thanked everyone who has rallied behind her case.

“I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf,” she said.

Lucio’s legal team had filed a 242-page application back on 15 April asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to grant a stay of execution.

In Monday’s ruling, the appeals court agreed that four claims made in the application should be reviewed, sending the case back to the 138th Judicial District Court of Cameron County.

These claims are that: prosecutors used false evidence to convict her and if it weren’t for this false testimony, no juror would have convicted her; that previously unavailable scientific evidence would have prevented her conviction; that she is actually innocent; and that prosecutors suppressed evidence that would have been favorable to her defense.

It is not clear when the trial court will begin reviewing the case.

Lucio’s legal team will ask for an evidentiary hearing to present the evidence and then for a new trial for the mother-of-14.

Lucio’s attorneys welcomed the court’s decision on Monday saying that it “did the right thing”.

“The Court of Criminal Appeals did the right thing by stopping Melissa’s execution. Medical evidence shows that Mariah’s death was consistent with an accident. But for the State’s use of false testimony, no juror would have voted to convict Melissa of capital murder because no murder occurred,” said Vanessa Potkin, Director of Special Litigation at the Innocence Project and one of Melissa’s attorneys in a statement.

“It would have shocked the public’s conscience for Melissa to be put to death based on false and incomplete medical evidence for a crime that never even happened.

“All of the new evidence of her innocence has never before been considered by any court. The Court’s stay allows us to continue fighting alongside Melissa to overturn her wrongful conviction.”

Melissa Lucio’s son John Lucio during a hearing in Texas last week
Melissa Lucio’s son John Lucio during a hearing in Texas last week (AP)

Kim Kardashian, who has rallied behind Lucio’s case, also tweeted that the stay was the “best news ever”.

“Best news ever!!! Melissa Lucio has been on death row for over 14 years for her daughter’s death that was a tragic accident,” she said.

“She is getting a new trial on her case and has been granted a stay of execution by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.”

The last-minute stay came just two days before Lucio was scheduled to be put to death by the state of Texas at 6pm CT on Wednesday 27 April.

The last-minute stay came moments before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was expected to decide whether or not Lucio should be granted clemency.

The parole board had until 1.30pm local time on Monday to recommend whether Lucio’s death sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment, if she should be granted a 120-day execution reprieve or if the execution should go ahead as planned.

It would then have been up to Governor Greg Abbott to decide whether to act on the recommendation.

Following the appeals court ruling, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles released a one-line statement saying it had declined to grant Lucio clemency because of the stay of execution.

“Based on a stay of execution issued by the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas on April 25, 2022 the Board of Pardons and Paroles will not be making a clemency recommendation at this time,” the statement read.

The statement did not provide any other details about the decision. It is not clear if the outcome would have been different had a stay not been issued.

With the clock ticking down to 27 April, Lucio’s attorneys had made several last-ditch attempts to halt her execution.

As well as the now-successful application with the appeals court, the legal team also made a last-ditch bid to Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz on Monday asking him to withdraw the execution date, using his own testimony under oath against him.

Melissa Lucio with some of her children before her arrest and conviction
Melissa Lucio with some of her children before her arrest and conviction (The Family of Melissa Lucio )

On Monday morning, Lucio’s legal team filed an additional supplement to a previous motion asking the DA to withdraw the order setting the 53-year-old’s execution date.

The new filing included “overwhelming evidence” that her execution would be “a miscarriage of justice” as well as a transcript of Mr Saenz’s sworn testimony to the Texas House Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform earlier this month where he promised to step in and stop her execution before it’s too late.

It was Mr Saenz’s office that requested a death warrant and an execution date for Lucio, leading to her execution date being set back in January.

The DA therefore also had the power to withdraw her execution date at any time.

Earlier this month, during a contentious hearing led by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, Mr Saenz initially refused to take any action to stop Lucio’s execution and cast doubt on new evidence suggesting she was not responsible for Mariah’s death.

But, later in the hearing, Mr Saenz relented saying that he believes the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will issue a stay but that, if it doesn’t, he will.

“If defendant Lucio does not get a stay by a certain day, then I will do what I have to do and stop it,” he said.

Lucio, a victim of lifelong domestic violence, was sentenced to death in 2008 after prosecutors claimed Mariah died from her mother physically abusing her.

For the last 14 years, Lucio has insisted she is innocent – and that no murder even took place – with her daughter sadly passing away from injuries caused by a fall down a flight of stairs two days earlier.

Her attorneys say that the only evidence to convict Lucio was a false “confession” as the pregnant and grieving mother was subjected to an aggressive five-hour interrogation by armed, male police officers in the hours after her daughter’s sudden death.

During the interrogation, Lucio asserted her innocence more than 100 times to the officers, according to the clemency application from her legal team.

But, because of her history as a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence and the actions of the male officers who “manipulated” her, she was vulnerable to their “coercion”, her attorneys said.

After five hours, Lucio ended up admitting that she sometimes spanked Mariah and caused some bruising on her daughter’s body – an admission that prosecutors took as a confession for her murder.

Crucial expert testimony for the defence was also excluded from her trial while false scientific evidence of the child’s injuries was presented to the jury and Lucio was subjected to gender bias from the get-go, according to her legal team.

Child protective services records showed that Lucio had never been violent towards her children and all of Lucio’s surviving children begged Texas authorities not to kill their mother.

Melissa Lucio during her interrogation by police officers in the hours after her daughter’s death
Melissa Lucio during her interrogation by police officers in the hours after her daughter’s death (The Innocence Project)

Last week, Lucio’s son Bobby Alvarez told The Independent that he had never doubted his mother’s innocence.

Mr Alvarez, now 22, was just seven when Mariah died and his mother was sent to death row and so he couldn’t really understand what was going on at the time.

“I knew my sister had passed and that was why we were taken away from our parents but I didn’t grasp that we had been taken away because they were accusing them of it,” he says.

“I didn’t fully understand the situation at the time.”

But when he became old enough to understand, he read about his mother’s case and “knew” she couldn’t have done it.

“Right away I never had a mindset that it was my mom [who killed Mariah],” he says.

“I knew my mom couldn’t have done it.”

Lucio’s case has drawn attention from some of the most unlikely of places, with a bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers calling for her execution to be halted.

More than half of all Texas state senators (both Democrats and pro-death penalty Republicans) had been demanding her life be saved, with a group visiting her on death row earlier this month.

Five jurors and one alternate who convicted Lucio and gave her the death penalty at trial also submitted declarations as part of her clemency bid saying they supported relief and would not have convicted her if they had seen the evidence they know now.

Kim Kardashian also amplified Lucio’s plight, telling her 72 million Twitter followers that there are “many unresolved questions” around the case.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

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