Melissa Lucio’s Life Was Spared on the Final Minute. What Occurs Now?


When the information broke, the small crowd gathered exterior the governor’s public reception room on the Texas Capitol erupted with cheers: The state’s Courtroom of Prison Appeals had stayed Melissa Lucio’s impending execution. It was sending her case again to district court docket to contemplate a number of urgent claims, together with that Lucio was harmless within the 2007 dying of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah.

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Maggie Luna was beaming from ear to ear, and Jennifer Toon had tears in her eyes. The 2 ladies — pals and previously incarcerated activists — had joined a broad coalition of supporters urgent each lever they may consider to attempt to cease the execution, scheduled for April 27. Neither lady had been consuming very a lot. Or sleeping nicely.

Toon had been the inmate librarian on the Mountain View jail unit the place Texas’s feminine dying row prisoners are housed, and he or she’d gotten to know Lucio over time. Lucio was sort and mild; Toon couldn’t think about that she was able to killing anybody, not to mention her personal daughter. “Melissa Lucio was the epitome of each system within the state of Texas failing at each degree: schooling, well being, religion neighborhood,” she mentioned. “And positively, the court docket system.”

In line with the state, Lucio, then a mom of 12 who struggled with drug habit, had crushed her toddler to dying in February 2007. Mariah’s lifeless physique arrived at a hospital in Harlingen, Texas, lined in bruises, which authorities instantly assumed have been proof of abuse. However though Lucio had a historical past of being investigated by Little one Protecting Companies, she had no historical past of bodily abusing her children. She tried to clarify to no avail that Mariah had fallen down the steps a number of days earlier; the likelihood that the kid’s dying was not homicide however the results of a tragic accident was by no means investigated. As an alternative, police subjected Lucio to a punishing late-night interrogation lasting greater than 5 hours. After repeatedly denying that she killed her daughter, Lucio lastly conceded that she was accountable. In 2008, Lucio was convicted and sentenced to die.

After Toon was launched from jail, she remained in contact with Lucio. Whereas bouncing round on-line, Toon got here throughout the documentary “The State of Texas v. Melissa,” which confirmed her instincts that Lucio was harmless. She prodded Luna, then her roommate, to observe the film. Lucio’s story resonated with Luna; a mother of three, Luna had struggled with drug habit, misplaced her youngsters to the state’s baby welfare system, and gone to jail. She may see herself in Lucio’s story. “This might’ve been me,” she mentioned. “That is terrifying — it must be terrifying for everyone.”

Toon puzzled why Lucio’s story wasn’t getting as a lot consideration because the instances of a number of the males on Texas’s dying row. “We felt like David and Goliath,” she mentioned, as she and Luna did what they may to push Lucio’s case into the highlight. Finally, the 2 ladies attached with Abraham Bonowitz, government director of Death Penalty Action, who had organized a marketing campaign round Lucio’s case throughout Texas and past. That’s what introduced Luna and Toon to the Capitol on April 25.

There have been two potential avenues of aid for Lucio. Her authorized workforce, together with attorneys from the federal public defender workplace in Austin and the Innocence Challenge, had filed a clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, asking them to suggest that Gov. Greg Abbott commute Lucio’s sentence, or no less than grant a 120-day reprieve from execution. They’d additionally filed a petition with the Courtroom of Prison Appeals, arguing that new proof undermined Lucio’s conviction. The legal professionals requested the court docket to dam the execution and ship the case again to the decrease court docket for additional scrutiny — and in the end, a brand new trial.

By Monday morning, there was a good quantity of hypothesis spreading amongst activists about what would occur; phrase was that the board had already made its choice and would make its announcement by early afternoon. As an alternative, simply earlier than 1 p.m., Bonowitz’s cellphone rang. It was Lucio’s son John, calling to say that the court had intervened.

“It’s not over by a protracted shot; this marketing campaign has to proceed,” Bonowitz advised a smattering of TV reporters. “However for us, what’s clear is that there’s a recognition by the court docket that one thing is mistaken and must be fastened.”

Shortly after the court docket delivered the keep, state Rep. Jeff Leach known as Lucio. Have you ever heard the information? he requested. She hadn’t.

“Are you critical!? Are you critical!?” she exclaimed through tears. “That’s great. Oh my God. What does that imply?”

“Effectively, it means you’re going to get up on Thursday morning,” Leach replied.

Supporters of Melissa Lucio embrace on the Texas Capitol after studying that the Courtroom of Prison Appeals issued a keep of execution on April 25, 2022.

Jordan Smith/The Intercept

Error Compounding Error

It was becoming that Leach would ship the information. The conservative Republican from North Texas grew to become an unlikely ally of the condemned mom from the Rio Grande Valley. Leach, a co-chair of the Home Prison Justice Reform Caucus, labored with Democratic Rep. Joe Moody to muster an unprecedented degree of assist for Lucio amongst an ideologically various group of greater than 80 state representatives — greater than half of the members of the Texas Home, a physique that not often involves a decisive consensus about something.

Over the past month, Leach, a self-professed supporter of capital punishment, grew to become more and more vocal about his considerations, vowing to do “every thing I can … in each approach potential” to stop Lucio’s execution. Leach and a handful of colleagues traveled to go to Lucio in jail. He and Moody additionally convened a committee listening to to query Cameron County District Legal professional Luis Saenz, who had requested Lucio’s execution date. They implored him to step up and withdraw it.

“To say I’m wrestling with the very existence of the dying penalty in Texas can be a dramatic understatement,” Leach said.

The truth that Lucio was granted a keep in any respect can also be comparatively uncommon; the Courtroom of Prison Appeals not often sticks its neck out to pause the state’s machinery of death. Through the years, it has routinely allowed executions to go ahead even in instances the place there have been serious questions a few defendant’s guilt. In truth, the court docket had twice ruled against Lucio’s appeals. Nevertheless it appears the relentless strain from activists and lawmakers, mixed with the mounting proof of Lucio’s innocence, was an excessive amount of to easily ignore.

The court docket’s order sends the case again to Cameron County, the place the trial court docket can be tasked with contemplating proof on 4 claims that minimize to the center of the state’s case in opposition to Lucio. Particularly, the query is whether or not false testimony, defective forensic practices, and hidden proof tainted her conviction.

Lucio’s legal professionals argue that Dr. Norma Farley, the forensic pathologist who autopsied Mariah, misled the jury when she insisted that Mariah’s accidents may solely have resulted from a deadly beating. As The Intercept has previously reported, Farley was unequivocal in testifying that she knew straight away that Mariah had been murdered. “This baby had extra bruises than I’ve ever seen in any case that I had earlier than,” she mentioned. “It is a beating.” Medical specialists who reviewed Lucio’s case now say that Mariah’s accidents have been totally in line with a fall down the steps, and that Farley didn’t rule out that risk earlier than leaping to her inflammatory conclusion.

The legal professionals additionally argue that Farley deployed junk science, together with testimony about an alleged bite mark on Mariah’s again, to bolster her insistence that Mariah had been abused. They usually say that Lucio’s interrogators — a phalanx of investigators that included Texas Ranger Victor Escalon — engaged in their very own junk science. From the second he walked into the interview room, Escalon testified, he knew that Lucio “had achieved one thing.” The notion that an individual can decide one other’s guilt or deception by way of their physique language has been roundly discredited.

The legal professionals additionally declare that the DA’s workplace illegally withheld from Lucio’s trial counsel essential paperwork generated by the state’s baby welfare company. These paperwork, her legal professionals argue, assist Lucio’s declare that Mariah’s well being had deteriorated after falling down the steps. The concept the workplace would possibly’ve engaged in authorized trickery to invigorate their case in opposition to Lucio is hardly shocking; then-District Legal professional Armando Villalobos was making an attempt to rehabilitate his reelection marketing campaign amid allegations of corruption, and he was up in opposition to a challenger who had taken him to process for failing to prosecute baby abuse instances. In 2014, Villalobos was sentenced to 13 years in federal jail for racketeering and extortion.

The trial court docket may even be requested to contemplate the declare that Lucio is harmless of homicide. Her legal professionals argue that credible science demonstrates that Mariah’s dying was brought on by an accident and that Lucio was sentenced to dying for against the law that by no means occurred.

“Error compounded error,” the legal professionals wrote of their petition to the Courtroom of Prison Appeals. “The biased investigation supported a prosecution — led by a criminally corrupt prosecutor — centered on an unreliable, contaminated ‘confession’ and false scientific proof that misled and infected the jury. Viewing the entire obtainable proof … no rational juror would have discovered Ms. Lucio responsible past an affordable doubt.”

In a cellphone name on Monday, Johnny Galvan, considered one of a number of jurors who supported Lucio’s clemency petition, expressed aid upon listening to that the court docket had stayed Lucio’s execution. “This makes my day,” he mentioned.

Juanita Hernandez and her son Juan hug Esperanza “Hope” Trevino, the mom of Melissa Lucio, throughout a vigil in San Juan, Tex., on April 22, 2022.

Photograph: Delcia Lopez/The Monitor through AP

Lingering Questions

Lucio’s son John was in Gatesville, Texas, on Monday afternoon, making ready for a go to along with his mom on the close by Mountain View unit. It was doubtlessly one of many final instances he would see her alive. He was accompanied by relations in addition to Sabrina Van Tassel, the director of “The State of Texas v. Melissa,” who had traveled from Paris to witness Lucio’s execution. John and his spouse, Michelle, have been filming an interview with Univision of their resort foyer when John stepped away to take a cellphone name from Assistant Federal Public Defender Tivon Schardl. Moments later, he interrupted the interview. “Babe,” he mentioned to Michelle, his voice crammed with emotion. “My mother received a keep.”

After sobs and hugs within the foyer, the household raced to see Lucio. “As quick as my coronary heart was pacing, that’s how briskly I used to be driving,” John later told reporters at a press convention. Michelle described the second they noticed Lucio contained in the visitation space. “We put our palms as much as the glass, and all of us started to cry.”

The press convention was nonetheless underway when Saenz, the Cameron County district legal professional, launched a press release responding to the keep of execution: “I welcome the chance to prosecute this case within the courtroom, the place witnesses testify underneath oath, the place witnesses may be cross-examined, the place proof is ruled by the foundations of proof and felony process, and the place the court docket guidelines pursuant to the rule of regulation,” it learn. “That’s our felony jurisprudence system and it’s working.”

The notion that Saenz can be wanting to retry Lucio slightly than drop the costs offended Dying Penalty Motion activist Charles Keith, who spent the previous a number of months touring to the Cameron County courthouse in Brownsville. Keith knew all too nicely what Lucio’s family members had simply been by way of: His personal brother, Kevin Keith, got here lower than two weeks from execution in Ohio regardless of doubts over his guilt. Talking on the press convention, Keith responded to Saenz’s assertion. “What proof would you’ve gotten? I’m hoping it’s not the identical proof Mr. Villalobos had. … In the event you’re gonna carry it, carry it proper. And if he didn’t have none 15 years in the past, you don’t have any at this time.”

Legal professionals for Lucio have expressed optimism {that a} new trial would in the end exonerate their shopper. “We’re assured that with the brand new proof of innocence, if Melissa was retried at this time that she can be acquitted,” Innocence Challenge legal professional Vanessa Potkin told reporters on Monday afternoon. The authorized workforce additionally addressed lingering questions on whether or not Saenz would even be eligible to retry Lucio. Attorneys for Lucio have lengthy argued that Saenz has a battle of curiosity as a result of the truth that Lucio’s protection legal professional at trial, Peter Gilman, now works for him. “There’s a movement pending within the trial court docket to disqualify him from additional participation on this case,” Schardl mentioned.

That call will in the end activate one other movement filed by Lucio’s legal professionals, searching for the recusal of Cameron County District Courtroom Choose Gabriela Garcia, whose court docket administrator was additionally a part of Lucio’s authorized workforce. On Monday, the CCA ordered Garcia to both recuse herself or have one other decide rule on her disqualification inside three days, Schardl defined. “After which whichever decide stays on the case will resolve the disqualification of the district legal professional if he doesn’t recuse himself.”

No matter who leads to cost, Lucio’s household and advocates should not ready on the courts. On April 27, the day Lucio was set to die, they held another rally exterior the Cameron Nation DA’s workplace, this time calling on Saenz to drop the costs. In entrance of a big white “Free Melissa Lucio” banner, Van Tassel regarded up towards the courthouse the place she had spent a lot time engaged on the movie that will carry Lucio’s story to the remainder of the world. The state of Texas had deliberate to execute an nameless lady, she mentioned. “And at this time she’s now not nameless. All people is aware of who she is.”


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