A Texas appeals court issued an order stopping Melissa Lucio’s execution on April 25th. Melissa Lucio is a 53-year old grandmother and mother who has been held in Texas since 2007. The district court will now consider new evidence to prove her innocence. The threat of execution hangs over her head.
The stay follows a surge of grassroots organizing across Texas that has drawn attention to her case, including mounting evidence that she was wrongfully sentenced for a crime that never took place.
As TruthoutAs reported, Lucio was convicted and prosecuted based on a coerced falsified confession. Her 2-year-old daughter Mariah fell down a flight of stairs while she and her family were moving from their second floor apartment. Mariah was born with a congenital foot defect that required special shoes. It made Mariah more susceptible to falling. Previous falls were not her fault. documented by child welfare agencies and teachers at the Head Start she had attended. (See Article 53 at link.
The toddler was fine, even though she cried after the fall. However, the toddler began to throw up after having eaten breakfast and lost her appetite completely the next day. Lucio put her down for a nap and she seemed lethargic. Later that evening, her father tried to wake the girl but she was not responsive. One of the older kids called 911. Paramedics arrived, unsuccessfully trying to revive the child, before taking her to an emergency room. Mariah was dead when they arrived.
Lucio explained to Lucio that her daughter had fallen down the stairs just two days before, but not that the accident had occurred at their previous home. Their new home had only three steps, raising the paramedics’ suspicions.
The state’s medical examiner found bruises and marks that she claimed were bite marks on the girl’s body — and concluded that Mariah had been severely abused. Nine years later, in 2016, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology would conclude that forensic bite mark evidence is not scientifically relevant. The Texas Forensic Science Commission came to the same conclusion in the same year. an end to bite mark testimony in criminal trials. But all that would come years later.
Lucio was taken into custody by police that night. She was subject to a five hour interrogation that lasted up to 3 am. Lucio was threatened, yelled at, and berated by police. Lucio, who had experienced a lifetime of sexual and physical abuse from adult men, including her mother’s boyfriend, her husband and her current partner, asserted her innocence more than 100 times. But after five hours, she acquiesced to their demands, mumbling, “I guess I did it.”
The National Registry of Exonerations estimates that approximately 40% of women exonerated have been wrongfully convicted of crimes involving children. Nearly 30 percent had been wrongfully convicted of killing children and 63 percent had been convicted of crimes that never happened — such as accidents or events that were fabricated.
Armed with her confession, Cameron County district attorney Armando Villalobos charged her with capital murder. He was seeking reelection in that year. Peter Gilman, her defense lawyer, had never been involved in a death penalty matter before. Although several of Lucio’s older children had seen their sister fall down the stairs, Gilman failed to call any to the stand.
He did attempt to introduce two expert witnesses to contextualize the ways in which Lucio’s history of sexual abuse had conditioned her to acquiesce to male authority figures, making her more vulnerable to making a false confession, but the trial judge excluded both.
She was convicted by the jury. Two days later, she was sentenced. She is one of six on the women’s death row unit at the Mountain View Unit at Gatesville, Texas. She is also the first Latina female to be executed by the state.
Gilman was again elected the next year. hired by the prosecutor’s officeHe is still an assistant district attorney in the city of San Juan. Villalobos, in 2014, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for over $100,000 in briberyExortion and coercion in exchange for prosecutorial discretion.
A Execution Date, and Organizing Against The Clock
Lucio’s conviction and death sentence began garnering wider attention in 2021 after Hulu released the documentary The State of Texas vs. Melissa. Filmmaker Sabrina Van Tassel, joined by Lucio’s now-adult children and her mother, have held screenings and discussions across Texas to raise awareness and outrage.
Luis Saenz, Cameron County District attorney, filed a motion in January 2022 for an April execution date. Judge Gabriela Garcia of the 138th District Court signed an order setting Lucio’s execution for April 27. She would be the first Texas woman executed since 2014.
On February 8, Lucio’s lawyers filed a motion to withdraw or modify her execution dateShe argued that she was wrongfully convicted. The motion is still pending before that same court, which also set her execution date.
Ten days later, on the 18th of February, the Inter-American Commission on Human RightsThe International Association for Human Rights (IACHR), an international body charged with monitoring human rights in the western part of the hemisphere, passed a resolution asking that Lucio not be executed by the United States until the commission has reached a decision. the December petitionSandra Babcock, of the Alice Project at the Cornell Center for the Death Penalty Worldwide, and Cornell law students filed the petition. They argued that Lucio was not properly represented at trial and that Lucio’s limited cognitive abilities, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder make her more vulnerable to the acute trauma of being in solitary confinement.
“As with all international law, there is no way the IACHR can force Texas to comply,” explained Babcock. “Nevertheless, other state prosecutors — including a Texas prosecutor in neighboring Hidalgo County, Texas — have agreed to postpone executions so that the IACHR can complete its review process. The IACHR is respected across the Americas. If Texas does not follow its decision, it could place the United States in a position to violate its international legal obligations. This undermines the reputation of the U.S. as a country that upholds the rule of law.”
On March 22, 2022, Lucio’s attorneys filed a clemency petitionIt also included declarations by four jurorsThey claimed that evidence was withheld during trial and that they were pressured to make a decision. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles typically renders its decision 48-hours before the scheduled execution. However, the board will stay in place. announced that it would not make a clemency recommendation.
On April 15, attorneys filed a 242-page document. application for a writ of habeas corpusThe Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was asked to stop Melissa’s execution and overturn her death sentence. The filing notes new scientific and expert evidence showing that Melissa’s conviction was based on an unreliable, coerced confession as well as unscientific false evidence, such as the bite mark testimony, that misled the jury.
This is one among four requests for a stay in execution that are currently before the appeals courts. Federal litigation has been filed by attorneys before the Fifth Circuit. A suggestion for reconsideration is pending in Court of Criminal Appeals.
Michelle Byrom was saved by the outpouring of public outrage
This is not the first instance of a grassroots movement stopping an execution. In Mississippi, 14 years after she had been sentenced to death, media attention led to a groundswell of outrage resulting in Michelle Byrom’s freedom.
Like Lucio, Byrom’s life had been marked by sexual and physical violence from the adult men in her life — from her stepfather to her husband, Edward Byrom Sr.
He was 31 and she was 15. They met and moved in together. He was verbally and physically abusive to her and their son Edward Jr., who was 18 when he was born.
Michelle Byrom was admitted to a Mississippi hospital with double pneumonia on June 4, 1999. Edward Jr. shot and killed Byrom that night after his father had attacked him physically. He told police his mother had hired Edward Sr. to murder him.
Byrom was taken into police custody. According to the Jackson Free Press She was on at least 12 powerful drugs when questionedHowever, he denied any involvement. It was not until county sheriff David Smith told her that her son had confessed and encouraged her not to let him take full responsibility that she repeated the details that police wanted to hear — she had hired her son’s friend to kill her husband.
Byrom was charged as capital murder. Edward Jr. testified against Byrom at her trial. Her defense lawyers did not disclose any details about her history of abuse and resulting mental disorders. She was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood demanded an execution date in 2014. Media scrutiny led to her conviction. Journalists found evidence of a pretrial confession from Edward Jr to his motherByrom had never seen it. He had also confessed to the court-appointed psychologist for forensic psychology.
The story — of an abuse victim wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death — garnered outrage. People called the governor’s office to stop the execution. The Mississippi Supreme Court was created in March 2014. reversed her death sentence and ordered a new trial.
But the prosecutor’s office announced it would retry her and Byrom remained behind bars for another two years. In 2016, she entered into an Alford plea. She pled guilty, but retained her innocence, in return for time served. She was released that JuneAfter 16 years of wrongful imprisonment and 14 years on death row,
Michelle Byrom enjoyed three and a-half years of freedom before she died in 2019 from breast carcinoma that had been diagnosed during her imprisonment.
Groundswell of Organizing in Texas
Lucio’s execution has also prompted a flurry of grassroots organizing across the state. Family members joined forces with anti-death penalty advocates to raise awareness about Lucio’s death sentence. Every Saturday evening, after visiting his mother on death row, Lucio’s oldest son, John, hosts a weekly group update with advocates across the state. The number of attendees has increased from 20 to several hundred in the last month.
Organizers throughout Texas have hosted letter-writing parties, both in-person and virtual, in which supporters wrote individual handwritten letters to the Board of Pardons and Paroles as well as to individual board members’ offices. Jordan Martinez-Mazurek from the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls estimates over 800 handwritten letters were sent out to board members.
In Brownsville, organizers held daily mid-afternoon vigils outside District Attorney Luis Saenz’s office. On March 23, during one of those vigils, Lucio’s son John talked to Saenz in the parking lot, urging him to withdraw the execution warrant. Saenz said that he understood the family’s position, but was non-committal.
The increased attention led to bipartisan support from more 100 Texas lawmakers who sent letters to the governorInvoking his support to stop the execution
Seven Texas state representatives were elected in April. traveled to Gatesville to meet with Lucio. A few days later, others joined. protest outside Dallas City HallWe are calling for Governor Abbott and Saenz’s immediate halt to the execution.
A few days later, they met again on April 12. state committee hearing about Lucio’s case. After being interrogated for more than an hour, Saenz finally appeared. shift his stance, stating, “If defendant Lucio does not get a stay by a certain day, then I will do what I have to do and stop it.”
On April 22, organizers delivered petitions to Saenz’s office, demanding that he withdraw the execution warrant. That same day, the IACHR sent a letter to Abbott’s office urging him to stay the execution.
The organizers held coordinated protests the next day 16 cities nationwide. In Texas, they rallied outside the governor’s mansion in Austin, the federal courthouse in Brownsville, and several parks. In Dallas-Fort Worth, one set of organizers rallied outside a pancake house while another group dropped a “Free Melissa Lucio” banner over an interstate where hundreds of passing cars honked their support. In other states, supporters held rallies outside of state houses, city halls, and local parks.
On Monday, they drove to the governor’s mansion in Austin to hand deliver petitions demanding that he stop Lucio’s execution.
“There’s been just like a grass fire across Texas fighting for Melissa,” said Martinez-Mazurek. “The fire took a little time to spread, but I’ve heard it spread to every corner of the state by this point.”
Execution was not stopped, but it was continued
Although the appeals court has halted her execution date for now, Saenz has not withheld the execution warrant.
Meanwhile, Lucio’s case has been sent to the 138th District Court for an evidentiary hearing about four of her claims — her actual innocence, the use of false testimony at trial, that the prosecution failed to disclose favorable evidence, and that new scientific evidence proves her innocence.
“We’re confident that with the scientific evidence, if Melissa were retried today, she’d be acquitted,” stated Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project and one of Lucio’s lawyers, at a press conference shortly after the stay was announced.
From death row, Lucio issued her own statement: “I thank God for my life. I have always believed and trusted in Him. I am grateful that the Court gave me the opportunity to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in mine today and always. I am grateful to have more time to be a mother to them and a grandmother for my grandchildren. I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf.”
Lucio’s family are also extraordinarily happy that her death has been averted — and hope that she’s one step closer to coming home. “For everybody who has stood by my sister and her innocence, thank you,” her sister Sonya Valencia said at the press conference. “We’re waiting for Melissa to come home.”
That’s what Jaden Janak from Fight Toxic Prisons and another of Lucio’s supporters hopes too. “Though we are happy about the stay and pending evidentiary hearing, we know our work is not done,” they told Truthout. “We will continue pressuring lawmakers, advocating for Melissa, and raising awareness about her case until she is at home with her family. You should not be on an ankle monitor. Not serving a sentence that is not accompanied by parole. But at home, free from the chains of the criminal [in]justice system.”