End the death penalty

‘Fighting for momma bear’: Melissa Lucio’s son begs Texas to halt her execution for a crime he knows ‘she couldn’t have done’

EXCLUSIVE: In just six days, Melissa Lucio will be strapped to a gurney and injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs that will kill her for a murder that she not only says she didn’t commit – but that experts say didn’t even occur. Her son Bobby Alvarez tells Rachel Sharp he has never doubted her innocence and has spent the last 15 years just ‘wanting my momma back’

<p>Melissa Lucio with her children. Records show she never abused her children</p>

Melissa Lucio with her children. Records show she never abused her children

Bobby Alvarez “cried every night wanting my momma back” when the state of Texas took him from her care and accused her of murdering his baby sister.

As a self-proclaimed “momma’s boy”, he remembers how he clung to his mother in early childhood, wanting to be with her at all times.

“Growing up I was always a momma’s boy so I was always wanting to be around her. I enjoyed her company. I remember she always played with me and made me laugh,” he tells The Independent.

“It was very difficult then being put in foster care … you feel so alone and that no one is there for you.

“I cried every night wanting to be back with her, for my parents to come for us. I knew they weren’t coming but there was always that hope.”

He was just seven years old that time.

Now, at 22, the state of Texas is trying to take his mother away from him once again.

But, this time, the goodbye will be final as in just six days’ time his mother – Melissa Lucio – will be strapped down to a gurney and injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs to put an end to her life.

Lucio, the only Hispanic woman on death row in Texas, has always maintained that she was wrongly convicted of the 2007 murder of her two-year-old daughter Mariah.

The 53-year-old mother-of-14 – along with multiple medical experts not heard at her trial – says that the little girl actually died from injuries caused by an accidental fall down the stairs two days before her death.

It’s a case that Lucio’s legal team says is riddled with injustice, from a false confession coerced from a pregnant grieving woman, to false scientific evidence presented at trial and the exclusion of expert testimony for the defence, and gender bias towards a woman who had suffered a lifetime of sexual and domestic abuse.

Melissa Lucio was repeatedly raped as a child, became a child bride at 16 and had 14 children to two abusive partners

As Sandra Babcock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and one of Lucio’s attorneys, tells The Independent “take your pick”.

With the clock rapidly ticking down to her 27 April execution date, her legal team is now calling on the courts to give Lucio a stay of execution or for Texas Governor Greg Abbott or the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant her clemency.

All of Lucio’s surviving children want their mother’s life to be spared.

In recent weeks, the fight for her survival has gained attention across America and calls to stop the execution of a potentially innocent woman have come from even the most unlikely of places.

More than half of all Texas state senators (both Democrats and pro-death penalty Republicans) are demanding her life be saved.

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

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

Never any doubts

For Mr Alvarez, there has never been any doubt that his mother was innocent of causing his sister’s death.

At the age of seven, when Mariah died and his mother was sent to death row, he couldn’t really understand what was going on.

All he knew was that he had lost his baby sister and both of his parents too.

“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.”

When he became old enough to understand, he remembers reading about his mother’s case.

“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.”

When he turned 18, he was able to communicate with his mother again and – despite their meetings taking place within the confines of prison walls – he says they now have a relationship much like that of any mother and son.

“In a way it’s the same as any parent and son relationship,” he says.

“I write to her and visit her. I tell her my problems and confide in her and tell her what is going on in my life and she gives me advice… just things like that.”

Bobby Alvarez says he has never doubted his mother’s innocence but didn’t fully understand what was happening when she was taken from him as a young child

Neither Lucio, her children nor her legal team deny that there were hard times in the family.

At the time of Mariah’s death, Lucio had 12 children and was pregnant with twins (who she later gave birth to behind bars) with her second husband Robert Alvarez, who was known to be violent.

The family was known to Child Protective Services (CPS), with over 1,000 pages of reports detailing that Lucio loved her children but struggled to care for them, her clemency application states.

While there were stints where the children were taken from her care due to neglect, CPS records show that Lucio was never violent towards her children and, even years later, none of her children have ever reported any physical abuse from their mother.

The family did however grapple with periodic homelessness and profound poverty and, between 1994 and 2007, they moved 26 times as they struggled to pay rent.

It was during one of these moves that Mariah tragically died.

A tragic death

On 15 February 2007, Lucio was preparing to move the family from their second-storey apartment to a new home, according to her clemency application.

She was packing up their belongings and helping some of her children get ready for school, while others were outside playing.

Mariah and one of Melissa’s other daughters Alexandra stayed inside and, at some point when Lucio’s back was turned, Mariah managed to open the unlocked screen door leading to the outside stairs of the home, the application states.

When Lucio noticed Mariah was no longer inside the apartment, she ran outside in a panic to look for her.

She found the two-year-old, who had struggled with her mobility since birth due to a turned-in foot as well as other illnesses, at the bottom of the flight of stairs crying.

At the time, Mariah did not appear to be seriously injured.

Melissa Lucio holding her daughter Mariah with one of her other daughters Adriana standing next to her

Her lip was bleeding from where her bottom tooth had cut into it, but aside from that she appeared to be unscathed.

But, according to Lucio’s clemency application, Mariah had actually suffered severe internal injuries that would ultimately lead to her death.

Over the next two days, her health worsened.

By 17 February, she was sleeping heavily and refusing to eat.

Lucio put Mariah down for a nap. She never woke up again.

Mr Alvarez’s memory is a little hazy of that night.

“I remember stuff here and there about that night,” he says.

“I know my mom was talking to my older sister about taking Mariah to hospital because she wasn’t eating.

“But she was waiting for my dad to come back from a storage unit with the car as he had gone to get furniture for the new house.

“But it didn’t turn out that way.”

When Lucio found her daughter had stopped breathing, she frantically called 911.

The two-year-old was taken to hospital where she was pronounced dead.

‘I guess I did it’

Just hours after her daughter’s death, Lucio – pregnant with twins and in a state of shock and grief – was subjected to a five-hour interrogation by armed, male police officers who accused her of beating her child to death.

They berated her and “extensively manipulated her” refusing to believe her version of events, according to her clemency application.

They even showed her photos of her dead baby.

During the interrogation, Lucio insisted more than 100 times that she hadn’t abused her daughter, according to the clemency application.

Melissa Lucio during her five-hour interrogation where her attorneys say she was coerced into a false confession

But, because of the actions of the male officers and her history as a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, she finally caved and admitted that she sometimes spanked Mariah.

“I guess I did it,” she said.

Those simple five words were then taken as a confession that she had murdered her daughter.

At her trial, one of the officers who interviewed her was allowed to testify that her body language during the interrogation also proved to him that she “did it”.

Jurors were prevented from hearing from two experts for the defence – a psychologist and a social worker – to testify that her behaviour in the presence of the male authority figure was typical of a battered woman who had suffered years of abuse.

Meanwhile, the medical examiner announced to the court that Mariah was “a battered child”, that her injuries must have occurred within 24 hours of her death, were caused by being abused and could not have come from a fall, and that there were bite marks on her body – testimony that Lucio’s attorneys say is now proven to be false.

The jury also didn’t hear that Lucio’s children had given the same account as their mother to police of their sister’s fall and deterioration of health.

In 2008, Lucio was convicted of Mariah’s murder and given the death penalty.

She has spent the last 14 years on death row in Texas, where she has been fighting for her freedom – and her life – ever since.

She was finally granted a new trial in 2019 after an appeals court agreed that her rights had been violated at her trial.

But the state of Texas quickly appealed the decision and it was overturned.

In October, the US Supreme Court denied a petition to hear her case, paving the way for the state of Texas to set her execution date for 27 April.

A date is set

Her son recalls the exact moment he found out a date had been scheduled for his mother’s life to end.

It was one morning in January and Mr Alvarez was working on a contractor job, when he says “something just told me ‘look at your emails’.”

He receives instant email alerts about his mother’s case and saw a memo that Texas officials had picked a date.

“I completely shut down,” he says.

“All of my coworkers were asking me what was wrong and I really couldn’t give them an answer.

“I was numb and couldn’t even think. I went to the restroom and just completely broke down.”

Now, with less than one week until the scheduled execution, the fight for Lucio’s life is more urgent than ever before.

Last Friday, her legal team filed a 242-page application asking the Texas Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to grant a stay of execution.

Ms Babcock says they are also planning to file a similar application in the federal courts.

The team has also called on the governor and parole board to either commute Lucio’s sentence or grant a reprieve for at least 120 days for a review of evidence in the case.

The applications and pleas for Lucio’s life point to a multitude of issues and questions around her conviction.

Melissa Lucio with her son Bobby Alvarez. He was just seven when his mother was arrested

‘Take your pick’

Firstly, there is the argument that no crime was even committed in the first place with little Mariah’s death instead being the result of a tragic accident.

Then there is what top false confession experts say was a “coerced false confession” after the vulnerable woman was “fed” words and facts by armed male authority figures during an “aggressive” interrogation.

The experts say that Lucio was especially vulnerable to being led to making a false confession because of her history as a victim of abuse.

Lucio had spent her whole life being sexually and physically abused by men.

It started at the age of six when she was raped by her mother’s live-in boyfriend.

To escape the abuse, she became a child bride marrying an older man at the age of 16.

The abuse continued and, by 26, she was a single mother supporting five children, while grappling with drug addiction, poverty and homelessness.

Her second husband – Mariah’s father – also had a history of violence against Lucio.

When Ms Babcock first spoke to The Independent about Lucio’s case last year, she explained how the abuse she suffered shaped her susceptibility to making a false confession.

“Melissa’s entire life was shaped by the violence she experienced at the hands of men,” she said at the time.

“But a jury was denied from hearing how her experiences of gender-based violence explained her behaviour in a way that is completely consistent with her innocence.”

She added: “Women who experience this trauma are uniquely affected by male authority figures so the aggressive interrogation by a male police officer affected her reaction.”

The gender bias endured by Lucio also played out in other aspects of the case, argues her legal team.

Melissa’s son John Lucio, with his wife, Michelle Lucio, prays with Jennifer Allmon, right, Executive Director of the Texas Catholic Church at a hearing last week

While she was sentenced to death, her husband was given just four years in prison over Mariah’s death on a charge of causing injury to a child by omission. He is now free.

Ms Babcock says Lucio was subjected to “gendered treatment” throughout her case “by police and the prosecutor who relied on blatantly sexist tropes to persuade the jury that she was going to be a danger to society and that they have to sentence her to die”.

Lucio was also at the mercy of “baseless and false scientific evidence” at her trial, says her attorney.

Seven top medical and forensic experts have now concluded that the original medical examiner’s testimony that Mariah’s death could only have been caused by child abuse, and not a fall, and had to have taken place in the 24 hours before her death was wrong.

Instead, they say her injuries are consistent with Lucio’s account and that the bruising on the child’s body was likely caused by Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC), a disorder caused by a head trauma from an infection or a fall.

“It is not possible to tell the difference between a bruise from DIC and a bruise from abuse,” according to one of the experts.

Bite mark analysis – used as evidence in the case – has meanwhile been wholly discredited by the scientific community. Experts voted to ban use of such evidence in cases in Texas back in 2016.

Lucio, dressed in white, leads a group of seven Texas lawmakers in prayer in a room at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas

“Anyone who looks at the case for 10 minutes can see immediately that there are major concerns with the integrity of the evidence that was used to convict Melissa,” says Ms Babcock.

“This is not just a case where you have strong evidence of a false confession that was coerced.

“It’s also false scientific evidence of the nature of Mariah’s injuries and false testimony about bite marks.

“Then you have the disproportionate sentence between Melissa and her partner Robert, the gender bias from police and prosecutors… I mean take your pick!”

She adds: “Any case would be compelling with just one of these things.”

Support from unlikely places

It is this glaring mix of multiple questions around Lucio’s case that Ms Babcock believes has led to a groundswell of support from both sides of the politicial aisle.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Texas have joined together to call for Lucio’s execution to be stopped with more than half of all state representatives sending the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Abbott a letter last month asking them to grant an execution reprieve or commute her sentence.

The bipartisan group of 83 representatives is being led by Republican Rep Jeff Leach and Democratic Rep Joe Moody and even includes members who are proponents of the death penalty.

Earlier this month, seven of the lawmakers visited Lucio on death row at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville and prayed with her.

A bipartisan group of 20 members of the Texas Senate have also publicly opposed Lucio’s execution.

Rep Leach spoke out about the case last week saying that even “pro-life conservatives” who are in favour of the death penalty and believe capital punishment is “a God-ordained institution” must recognise the state has “royally messed it up” in Lucio’s case.

Seeing both Republicans and Democrats come together – in a historically pro-death penalty state – and demand Lucio’s life be saved shows the level of “injustice” in her story, says Ms Babcock.

“This has never happened before in any case in Texas, or in any state in the US where a majority of state senators and state House members have appealed to the parole board and the governor to stop an execution including many Republicans,” she says.

“That has never happened before and what it tells you is that the injustice in this case is glaring here.”

Republican Rep Jeff Leach with Melissa Lucio. He is calling for her execution to be halted

Even for people who believe in the death penalty, Lucio is not the person or the case they had in mind when they envisioned what the death penalty is for, she says.

Supporters of capital punishment believe it serves two functions, as a deterrent of crime and as vengeance for the victims, says Ms Babcock – functions that both fail in Lucio’s case.

“How can this serve as a deterrent when the person who is condemned is innocent and moreover has been living in prison for the last 14 yrs without any incidents?” she asks.

She describes Lucio as the “least dangerous person” who spends her time praying, knitting blankets and reading murder mystery books.

“She is deeply human and relatable. There is a myth that we have in mind about who is on death row and Melissa Lucio does not fit that myth,” she says.

On the aspect of vengeance, Ms Babcock points out that – aside from Mariah – the victims of the alleged crime here are Lucio’s other children “who all want their mother to live”.

Fate in the hands of a few

But, despite the mounting pressure to spare Lucio’s life, her fate rests in the hands of the few and her legal options are dwindling.

If the Texas appeals court grants her a stay of execution, her team will ask for an evidentiary hearing and a new trial. If it is rejected, they will take the case to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, hopes of clemency are yet to become a reality, as the governor and the parole board have so far been silent about the case.

Aside from a stay from state or federal appeals courts or clemency from the governor or parole board, there is an even simpler way to immediately stop Lucio’s execution.

Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz was not the prosecutor at the time of Lucio’s trial.

That prosecutor – Armando Villalobos – is now serving a 13-year federal prison sentence on charges of bribery and extortion connected to a wide-ranging Texas corruption ring.

Mr Saenz was, however, the person who requested Lucio’s execution date.

And he also has the power to withdraw that request at any time.

So far, the DA has given mixed messages about whether or not he will step in.

Last week, during a contentious hearing led by Reps Moody and Leach, Mr Saenz initially refused to take any action to stop Lucio’s execution and disputed the new evidence that Mariah was not a victim of physical abuse at the hands of her mother.

Melissa Lucio with some of her children in an undated photo

But, later in the hearing, Mr Saenz relented saying that he believes the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will issue a stay and 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.

Rep Leach warned that he would hold the prosecutor to his promise saying “we got it on tape”.

Ms Babcock says Lucio’s legal team isn’t confident the DA will stick to his word, however, after he said “different things at different times” during the hearing.

She says they have written to him asking him to act but have received no response and, as of 21 April, he is yet to take any action to halt proceedings.

His office did not respond to The Independent’s questions about when he plans to put a stop to the execution or why he is waiting for the appeals court to act first.

“It doesn’t really make sense if he agrees the stay of execution is appropriate then why wait? What is he waiting for?” asks Ms Babcock.

“The waiting is just inflicting more unnecessary anguish on Melissa and her children.”

Preparing to die

Both Ms Babcock and Mr Alvarez tell The Independent that the mother-of-14 is naturally anxious but has put her trust in her faith that she will live to see 28 April.

“She’s obviously upset but she’s told me and my brother [John Lucio] multiple times that she is putting it in God’s hands and that, whatever the outcome, she’s at peace with it,” says Mr Alvarez.

On Wednesday – the start of the one week countdown to her scheduled execution – she was placed on death watch, meaning prison guards are now watching over her every movement 24 hours a day.

Lucio told Ms Babcock over the phone that she cried when she was told the death watch was starting that day.

“The anxiety and stress continue to mount as the days go by,” Ms Babcock says.

“She is having to choose who she wants to witness her execution and is being asked to participate in the preparations for her own death.

“So it makes it very real but it is also impossible to properly prepare yourself when you don’t have certainty one way or the other.”

Melissa Lucio before her arrest and conviction for a crime she says she didn’t commit

Ms Babcock describes it as “psychological torture” for Lucio as she “walks this unbearable line between hope and despair”.

But she says that Lucio is more concerned about the impact her execution will have on her children who have already been forced to spend the last 15 years with their mother behind bars.

“She is worrying about everybody else,” she says.

“Melissa downplays her feelings of despair and depression as she doesn’t want other people to worry about her.

“She’s a person of deep faith and believes that God has a plan for her and is going to spare her life but at the same time she is very anxious and afraid for her children.

“She is thinking about her children all the time and what will happen if she leaves them without their mother.”

‘Fighting for momma bear’

Mr Alvarez admits that the closer it gets to his mother’s execution date the harder it gets.

“This last few weeks I’ve just been going through the motions,” he says.

“There are days where I completely break down. There are other days where I’m semi-decent and get through the day without breaking down.

“It’s hard being this close to it.”

The 22-year-old says he is trying not to think about the execution going ahead and the prospect of losing his mother all over again.

“I’m trying not to think about it,” he says.

“I’m just trying to think positively and to hope for the best as if I think of the worst I don’t know if I will get through the day.”

“I’m hoping for a last-minute clemency or a stay of execution. And I’m trying not to think of a last minute where it’s ‘let’s get the injection’.”

Melissa Lucio with her son John as a baby. She says she is so proud of her kids for fighting for ‘momma bear’

For the majority of Mr Alvarez’s life, his mother has been on death row.

But, for all the toll it’s taken on him, his other siblings and his mother, he wants people to realise that her execution will mark a far greater injustice and tragedy than to their family alone.

“The impact is not just on me but on lots of people out there who are in similar situations of injustice,” he says.

“My mom didn’t have a fair trial. There was a lot of corruption from the beginning so it’s not just a case of let’s stop the injection and stop an innocent woman from being executed, it’s let’s stop this injustice from happening.

“Basically if they go through with this they are saying it’s okay to give innocent people the death penalty.”

It’s this fight to save her life and against injustice that Ms Babcock says makes Lucio “so proud” of her children.

She recalls the mother-of-14’s words to her in a conversation earlier this week:

“‘I see them out there fighting for their momma bear and I’m just so proud of them’.”

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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