Texas Plans to Execute an Abuse Survivor Based on a Coerced Confession

First it was her mother’s boyfriend. It was then the man she married when she was 16. Then came her next partner. Melissa Lucio suffered repeated sexual abuse starting at age 6. By the time Texas Ranger Victor Escalon demanded that she confess to the death of her 2-year-old daughter, 39-year-old Lucio had been well-conditioned to acquiesce to adult men, even if it meant confessing to a crime she didn’t do.

None of this was explained to her during her trial. Lucio will be executed by the State of Texas on April 27, 2022. She is the first Latina woman to be sentenced to death in Texas and the first woman to be executed by Texas. since 2014. Lucio has always maintained his innocence.

“Melissa had multiple vulnerabilities and susceptibilities for making a false incriminating statement in a coercive interrogation setting,” Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project and one of Lucio’s attorneys, told Truthout.A psychologist discovered that Lucio had an IQ level of 70 during an evaluation she received in earlier years from Child Protective Services. This puts her in the “average” category. intellectually disabled range. According to the National Registry of Exonerations 70 percent of exonerations involving false confessions were recorded by people with mental illness or intellectual disability.

“They took advantage of a woman who had a lifelong experience of gender-based violence,” said Sandra Babcock, faculty director at the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide Expert on women and death penalty “Prosecutors minimized the impact of gender-based violence and exploit their trauma to obtain criminal convictions and death sentences.”

40 percent of women who were exonerated have been wrongfully convicted of crimes involving child victimsAccording to the National Registry of Exonerations, this is a staggering number. Nearly 30 percent had been wrongfully convicted of killing children and 63 percent had been convicted of crimes that never happened — such as accidentsOr events that were invented. Lucio’s prosecution also illustrates the ways in which state actors — including law enforcement and courts — twist the effects of ongoing trauma and violence as evidence of a survivor’s guilt.

When Trauma becomes evidence of guilt

The majority of women incarcerated are women have experienced physical and sexual abuseBefore arrest. Lucio, whose childhood was marred by sexual violence and parental dismissal, is included in this group.

Before prison, Lucio lived her entire life in Harlingen, TexasLocated near the Mexico border, is a small town of less than 72,000 people.

Lucio was just one year old when her father left the family. Her mother struggled financially to support her six children. She worked long hours and often left them with her boyfriends. When Lucio was 6, her mother’s boyfriend began raping her — and continued to do so for the next two years. She was also repeatedly raped by her mother. raped by an uncle. She told her mother, but she said that her mother did not believe her.

Studies have shown that childhood sexual victimization is a common phenomenon. increases the risk of victimization in adulthood between two and 13.7 times.

That’s what happened with Lucio. At 16, she married 20-year-old Guadalupe Lucio — in large part to escape her family situation — and dropped out of school. The couple had five children by the time she turned 24. But marriage didn’t end the violence. According to court documents, Guadalupe was a “physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic.” His abuse escalated until he abandoned the family in 1994.

Lucio then met Robert Alvarez and moved in with him. They had seven more children together. Lucio and others claimed that Alvarez was also abusive. The principal at Lucio’s children’s school reported seeing Alvarez punch Lucio on school grounds. The family was also economically unstable. They lived in a park for four to six weeks.

In September 2004, two weeks after Mariah, Lucio’s youngest child, was born, Child Protective Services placed Mariah and six of her minor siblings in foster care after receiving reports of neglect. Lucio was never accused — by Child Protective Services or any of her children — of abuse.

Two years later, in November 2006, Child Protective Services returned Mariah and her siblings to Lucio and Alvarez’s care. The family lived in a second-story apartment that could only be accessed via a steep wooden staircase.

Mariah, now age 2, fell down the steep stairs three months later, while her family was moving into a new home. Although she seemed fine after the fall, the girl took a rest and was not responsive when her family tried to wake it up. One of Lucio’s older daughters called 911. Mariah was already dead when paramedics arrived. Lucio explained to them that Mariah had fallen down two days prior, but that their new home had only three steps.

“They immediately doubted her story and rushed to judgment and came to the conclusion that this had to be abuse and murder,” explained Potkin. “From that point on, tunnel vision set in and they didn’t consider any other explanation.”

The state’s medical examiner found significant bruising on the girl’s body as well as a weeks-old fracture in her left arm, missing patches of hair, and marks on her back that the examiner said were bites.

Nine years later, in 2016, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology concluded that forensic bite mark evidence is not scientifically valid. The Texas Forensic Science Commission was also a part of this initiative. called for an end to bite mark testimony in criminal trials.

However, in 2007, the medical examiner determined that Mariah had been severely molested and had died from a head injury within 24 hours.

Lucio was already awake for 14 hours and was currently pregnant with twins. Police interrogated him. She told detectives that her daughter had fallen down the stairs two days earlier, but the police were fixated on the idea that Lucio had caused her daughter’s death.

“She’s a mother. Her young child has just passed away. She’s suffering from shock and trauma and immediately taken into interrogation and berated by officers who tell her she’s a horrible mother,” Potkin said. “It was her psychological response to the trauma that was used against her as evidence of guilt. It was a vicious cycle that kicked in — a presumptive questioning and coercive tactics used to break her down and get her to make some inculpatory statement.”

This included yelling and implicit threats, such as one detective telling her, “If I beat you half to death like that little child was beat, I’d bet you’d die too!”

Lucio repeatedly denied hitting Mariah or abusing her. She admitted to occasionally spanking her children “on the butt.” She also told police that some of her older children were rough with their youngest sibling, but did not know who caused Mariah’s specific injuries.

Lucio was already being interrogated for hours, and had not slept nor eaten since Texas Ranger Victor Escalon took control of the interrogation at 1 a.m. The Rangers are notorious for using harsh interrogation techniques, including coercing false confessionsThat has sent people to death rows.

Escalon showed photos of Mariah’s injuries and prompted her for more details. Lucio said that she had bitten her daughter while tickling her, but she didn’t know why. She continued to insist on the fact that she had never punched her daughter in her head and had only spanked it with her hand.

Escalon repeatedly pressed her about the bruises on Mariah’s body until Lucio said, “I guess I did it.” Shortly after, Escalon turned the interrogation camera off.

He resumed recording at 3 AM. Escalon brought in a doll and ordered Lucio to show Mariah how she had bitten and spanked her. She also kept urging her to hit it harder. He pointed out several bruises on the doll and instructed Lucio that he spank it in those areas to show how she would have caused them. He also asked her to affirm that she was Mariah’s only spanker..

A Conviction in an Election Year

Armed with Lucio’s supposed confession, Cameron County prosecutor Armando Villalobos, seeking reelection, charged her with capital murder. She could be executed if she is found guilty.

On the trial’s first day, prosecutors played recordings of Lucio’s statements that she was the only one responsible for Mariah’s injuries. They called police and paramedics to testify about Lucio’s demeanor that evening. Texas Ranger Escalon testified about Lucio’s seeming passivity, stating that people who are innocent would have acted outraged and upset.

During their closing arguments, prosecutors replayed portions of the interrogation video and characterized Lucio’s statement as a confession.

Lucio’s lead attorney Peter Gilman attempted to introduce two expert witnesses — social worker Norma Villanueva and psychologist John Pinkerman — to contextualize her responses and counter Escalon’s assertions about Lucio’s guilt. Both had reviewed Lucio’s history and interviewed her several times, and would have illuminated how Lucio’s history of sexual abuse affected her during interrogation, including how the ongoing trauma had conditioned Lucio to acquiesce to male authority figures, thus rendering her vulnerable to repeating what Escalon prompted her to say. Pinkerman concluded that Lucio suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that Lucio’s flat affect in response to Mariah’s death and her own trial were dissociations to numb herself from the pain. Both witnesses were excluded by the trial judge.

Instead, the jury heard three witnesses for the defense — a neurosurgeon who testified that blunt trauma from falling down the stairs could have caused Mariah’s death; Lucio’s sister who testified that Lucio “never disciplined her children,” and a Child Protective Services worker who testified that nothing in the agency’s filesLucio was physically abusive to her children, according to defense attorneys. In their closing argument, defense attorneys explained Lucio’s statements as products of a coercive and lawyer-less interrogation, not as admissions of guilt.

Lucio was convicted by the jury of capital murder in July 2008. Babcock observed that Villalobos called the jail officials to inquire if Lucio had ever been crying or screaming during the penalty phase. When told that she spent most of her time lying or sitting on her bed, Villalobos characterized her as “cold-hearted” and “remorseless.” She became the first Latina sentenced to death in Texas.

Villalobos was elected to reelection. Lucio was sent to the women’s death row at the Mountain View Unit, a prison in Gatesville, Texas, where she has remained in solitary confinement for the past 14 years.

Robert Alvarez was sentenced to four year imprisonment for reckless injury to a minor in a separate case.

A Looming Death Sentence, and Race Against the Clock

The following year, in October 2009, Lucio’s defense attorney Peter Gilman was hired by district attorney Armando Villalobos. Villalobos was a top-rated hotel in 2014 sentenced to 13 years in prison for over $100,000 in bribery and extortionIn exchange for prosecutorial discretion, such a minimizing of charging decisions and agreeing pre-trial diversions. Gilman remains an assistant district attorney.

A panel of three judges from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on October 17th that Lucio was not entitled to a meaningful defense under her Constitution. The state appealed the decision to the full 17-member court. Ten judges agreed that excluding Pinkerman’s testimony deprived Lucio of a fair trial; three of those judges then sided with their colleaguesIn ruling that the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, (AEDPA), required federal courts to follow the decisions of state courts. In other words, explained Babcock, although the majority of judges agreed that she did not receive a fair trial, “Melissa was condemned to die on a legal technicality.”

Lucio turned towards the U.S. Supreme Court. Sixteen organizations, as well as eight former prosecutors or legal experts, submitted an application. amicus brief In support of her. However, the Supreme Court rejected her case last October.

In December, Lucio’s new legal team petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights(IACHR), an organisation that oversees human rights in the Western Hemisphere. In their petition, Babcock and her law students argued that not only was Lucio inadequately represented at trial and that crucial witnesses were excluded, but also that Lucio’s limited cognitive abilities, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder renders her more vulnerable to the acute trauma of solitary confinement.

The motion was filed by Luis V. Saenz (current Cameron County prosecutor) to set an April execution day in January 2022. The court granted that motion. Melissa Lucio will be executed lethal injection by Texas if the State of Texas does not intervene.

On February 8, Lucio’s lawyers filed a motion to withdraw or modify her April 27 executionLucio was wrongfully convicted. The motion is currently pending at the 138th Judicial District Court in Cameron County, which is the same court that decided her execution date.

The IACHR adopted a document on February 18th. resolution requesting that the U.S. refrain from executing LucioThe commission will not make a decision until she has submitted her petition.

Texas law requires that any application for clemency, or a lessening of Lucio’s sentence, must be received by the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles no later than 21 days before the execution; for Lucio, that date is April 6, 2022. Lucio’s lawyers must now race against the clock — and the ongoing COVID restrictions — to finalize and present all exculpatory evidence to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott.

Mountain View prison was opened in January. 52 newly identified COVID cases among incarcerated people and another 27Staff. “COVID is raging here,” one incarcerated person wrote in a letter to TruthoutEnde of January

“It’s outrageous that Texas has set an execution date while we are still in the midst of a pandemic,” said Babcock. The pandemic imposed a year-long prohibition on in-person contact with Lucio (or any person incarcerated in Texas prisons) and continues to impede lawyers’ and experts’ access to her.

“Texas’s refusal to give her team the time that it would take to put together the most convincing and compelling package is itself a great miscarriage of justice, the likes of which we have not seen in the annals of the death penalty in Texas,” Babcock said.