The Independent raises Melissa Lucio death penalty case before the White House

Lucio could became first Latina executed in modern Texas history

Andrew Feinberg,Josh Marcus
Friday 08 April 2022 23:09 BST
Melissa Lucio antes de ser condenada por asesinato y enviada al corredor de la muerte
Melissa Lucio antes de ser condenada por asesinato y enviada al corredor de la muerte (Melissa Lucio)
Leer en Español

The White House said it had “nothing to predict” regarding the case of Melissa Lucio, a Texas woman on death row for allegedly murdering her two 2-year-old daughter, after The Independent asked whether President Joe Biden would consider pushing Governor Greg Abbott to intervene.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointed to Mr Biden’s public position on the death penalty and said she had “nothing to predict” in the case.

“Well, you know the president’s position and view on the death penalty, and there’s an ongoing review at the Department of Justice, at a federal level, this is obviously at a state level. I don’t have anything to predict beyond that.”

(On the campaign trail, Mr Biden promised to push Congress to pass a law ending the death penalty at the federal level, and the Department of Justice has re-instituted a moratorium on the practice at federal prisons while its review is under way.)

Lucio, 53, was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of her daughter Mariah.

Her story largely faded into obscurity for the following two decades, though activists have succeeded in recent years in bringing new scrutiny to the case—including impassioned pleas from reality star Kim Kardashian, who said Lucio’s death sentence showed “innocent people are suffering” on death row.

They argue Melissa Lucio’s story is yet another example of the death penalty being used against someone who is not guilty, but unable to fight her prosecution because of capital punishment’s built in biases against women, people of colour, and those in poverty.

The mother of 14 will be executed on 27 April barring intervention from Texas officials.

Republican officials, church leaders, and criminal justice activists have all rallied around her case.

Jurors involved in the conviction have also said they are reconsidering their decision, now that new evidence has come to light.

In an editorial in the Houston Chronicle on 3 April, former juror Johnny Galvan Jr wrote: “But there were so many other details that went unmentioned. It wasn’t until after the trial was over that troubling information was brought to light.

“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.”

Police arrested Lucio in 2007, after she called them for help when she discovered Mariah motionless on the floor of the small apartment where they lived.

The child showed signs of a broken arm untreated for weeks, a head injury, bite marks on her back, and bruises across her body. The official who carried out an autopsy on Mariah said it was one of the worst examples of child abuse she had ever seen.

But advocates argue officials took Lucio’s lifetime of challenges—struggling with drug addiction, homelessness, a lifetime of sexual and physical abuse herself, and having some of her children removed by Child Protective Services—and unfairly used it to paint her as a murderer in a prosecution riddled with aggressive tactics and bizarre oversights.

After being arrested, Lucio was interrogated for five hours by a group of armed policemen, who berated her as she claimed her innocence over 100 times, according to a clemency application her attorneys have filed with Texas governor Greg Abbott.

Lucio, who was grief-stricken, pregnant with twins at the time, and exhausted by an interrogation that stretched to 3am, eventually appeared to admit to spanking and biting her child, which prosecutors alleged proved her guilt in Mariah’s death.

Neither Lucio’s lengthy file with state child protection officials, nor any eyewitness testimony from her family, indicates she was ever physically violent with the children, though state officials did remove some of her children from her care because of indications they were suffering from homelessness and neglect.

Instead, Lucio, her defence team, and members of her family say Mariah was injured when falling down the stairs at the apartment, and was a target of abuse from her siblings.

Court records indicate Lucio didn’t want to tell her husband about the fall for fear of reprisal, and that she thought Mariah seemed fine after the accident, so she didn’t immediately call for medical care.

Experts assembled by Lucio’s defence say the scenario is a classic false confession from a vulnerable woman under extreme circumstances.

“Mariah’s death was a tragedy, not a murder,” Professor Sandra Babcock, one of Lucio’s attorneys and the director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, told The Independent. If Texas moves forward with the execution, it “shows that any innocent woman can be executed.”

At trial, Lucio was defended by an attorney who declined to call her children to testify, and didn’t mention the claims that Mariah had fallen down the stairs and been hit by the other children. The lawyer, Peter Gilman, took a job with the prosecutor’s office soon after the conviction, though he denies any wrongdoing.

Armando Villalobos, the “tough on crime” county prosecutor who led the case against Lucio, was up for re-election at the time of the 2008 trial, and is currently serving a 13-year federal prison sentence on charges of bribery and extortion connected to a wide-ranging Texas corruption ring.

In 2019, a federal appeals court made the rare move of offering Lucio a new trial, finding she’d been denied her constitutional right to a complete defence, but Texas appealed the decision. The US Supreme Court in October 2021 declined to intervene in the case, ending the appeals process.

State officials in Texas could offer Lucio clemency or delay her execution to allow for more evidence to be heard.

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.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in