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Case Background

Melissa Lucio:

A Victim of Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence Wrongly Convicted

and Condemned to Die for the Accidental Death of Her Daughter

 

Melissa Lucio did not murder her daughter. She is on Texas’s death row despite forensic and eyewitness evidence that her daughter died from a head injury she suffered in a fall. Despite that evidence of innocence, Texas officials have scheduled Melissa’s execution for April 27, 2022.

In 2008, Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos—who was then seeking reelection but is now serving a 13-year federal prison sentence for bribery and extortion—prosecuted Melissa for capital murder in the accidental death of her daughter, Mariah. Melissa herself is a survivor of lifelong sexual abuse and domestic violence. At the time of her arrest, Melissa had no record of violence. Thousands of pages of protective-service records and recorded interviews with her children show Melissa was not abusive. But Villalobos needed a villain. So Melissa was subjected to a five-hour, late-night, carefully orchestrated and aggressive interrogation until she said “I guess I did it. I’m responsible.” Lacking solid physical evidence, Villalobos’s team characterized that as a “confession.”

A Lifetime of Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence, and a False “Confession”

With confessions, content cannot be divorced from context.

Judge Jennifer Elrod, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

 

Melissa’s wrongful conviction and death sentence followed decades of interpersonal violence that she endured at the hands of relatives and partners. When Ms. Lucio was just 6, two adult male relatives began sexually abusing her, preying on her when her mother was not home. As a child victim of sexual violence, Melissa was vulnerable to repeated victimization. As a young teenager, she was raped again. At age sixteen, she married Guadalupe Lucio, becoming a child bride. (Although otherwise against the law in Texas, this marriage was permitted because her mother gave consent.) Guadalupe, a violent alcoholic and drug dealer, abandoned Melissa after she gave birth to five children. Melissa’s next partner, Robert Alvarez, continued the cycle of violence and abuse. During Melissa’s relationship with Robert, she gave birth to seven children, including Mariah. Robert beat and berated Melissa and the children. The family sunk deeper into poverty and was intermittently homeless. By the time she was thirty-five, struggling with abuse, mental illness, addiction and poverty, Melissa had given birth to twelve children and suffered multiple miscarriages.

On February 15, 2007, as Melissa was moving her family to another apartment, Mariah, Melissa’s youngest daughter, fell down dangerously steep exterior stairs. Her injuries did not appear life-threatening. But two days later, Mariah went down for a nap and never woke up.

Freshly grieving the loss of her daughter and still numb with shock, Melissa was hauled into an interrogation room where armed, male police officers stood over her, yelling, berating, and accusing her of causing her daughter’s death. She repeatedly told them she had not killed her child. Still, the officers pressured her. They applied coercive maximization and minimization interrogation techniques that are notorious for their tendency to produce false confessions, particularly when applied to suggestible people such as those with cognitive impairments and trauma survivors. After five hours of interrogation, Melissa grew increasingly emotionally and physically exhausted. Finally, in response to a Texas Ranger’s repeated demands and exhortations that she admit responsibility for Mariah’s injuries, Melissa acquiesced, stating, “I guess I did it.”

The Prosecution and Trial Court Barred Melissa’s Defense

The State presented no physical evidence or witness testimony establishing that Lucio abused Mariah or any of her children, let alone killed Mariah.

The jury was deprived of key evidence to weigh: that is the point.

 [E]xcluded testimony was indispensable to Lucio’s defense because it rebutted the State’s most critical evidence of Lucio’s guilt.

The exclusion of Pinkerman’s testimony bears hallmark signs of irrationality.

— Judge Catharina Haynes, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (writing for herself and six other judges).

At trial, Texas Ranger Victor Escalon testified that Melissa’s slumped posture, passivity, and failure to make eye contact told him, “right there and then,” that she “did it.”

Expert witnesses were prepared to dispute the Ranger’s amateur opinion with facts and science. Psychologist Jonathan Pinkerman and social worker Norma Villanueva had interviewed Melissa and members of her family. They read the police reports and thousands of pages of protective-services records. They administered psychological tests and consulted the scientific literature on women who survived longtime abuse and women who killed their children. They concluded that Melissa’s response to interrogation showed clear symptoms of traumatic abuse and she had nothing in common with women who killed their children. They would have testified that Melissa’s slumped shoulders, her bowed head, expressionless face, and ultimate acquiescence to the Ranger were exactly what the science predicts from a woman who had endured a lifetime of abuse by men.

But Villalobos’s team objected to testimony from Dr. Pinkerman and Ms. Villanueva, who were ready to testify that Melissa’s flat affect and acquiescence to the Ranger’s aggression were symptoms of the damage Melissa suffered from a lifetime of traumatic abuse. The trial court acceded to the prosecution’s request. The court ruled that, as a social worker, Ms. Villanueva was not qualified to identify signs a woman had been abused. But, the judge said, if the defense had a psychologist, that might be different. So, the defense offered Dr. Pinkerman. Again, Villalobos objected. This time the judge declared that the expert testimony contradicting Ranger Escalon was irrelevant.

By excluding this testimony, the trial court deprived Melissa of the only means she had of explaining that, notwithstanding her demeanor and self-incriminating statements, she was innocent of her daughter’s murder. As a result, the jury never learned about how Melissa’s history of gender-based abuse and trauma shaped her reactions immediately after her daughter’s death. Without that context, the jury convicted Melissa of capital murder. Her partner Robert, by contrast, was sentenced to four years in prison for endangering a child. As U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patrick Higginbotham observed, “Facts matter. In this morality play of citizen decisions of life or death, the jury represents the people, but they did not hear [Melissa’s] defense.”[1]

Melissa’s trial attorneys were wholly unprepared for the penalty phase of trial. Lead counsel failed to seek the assistance of a mitigation specialist and experts until weeks before the trial began. As a result, Melissa’s mitigation specialist never completed her investigation, and the jury never learned about the extent of Melissa’s history of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence. This omission was particularly damaging given the weakness of the prosecution’s case for death. As Melissa had no prior record of violence, the State’s sole aggravating evidence was a prior conviction for driving under the influence.

So Far, the Courts’ Hands Have Been Tied

I agree we should deny relief despite the difficult issue of the exclusion of testimony that might have cast doubt on the credibility of Lucio’s confession. That exclusion was the key evidentiary ruling at trial. Able colleagues in dissent have shown the factual imperative that jurors hear this testimony.

— Judge Leslie H. Southwick, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

After reviewing the facts of Melissa’s case, a panel of federal judges serving on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that she was denied her constitutional right to present “a meaningful defense.” In a unanimous three-judge opinion, the court explained that Melissa’s incriminating statements during interrogation were the most significant evidence in the case, as there was no physical evidence or witness testimony directly establishing that Melissa abused Mariah or any of her children, let alone killed Mariah.

Texas appealed that decision to the full 17-member Fifth Circuit. Although 10 of the 17 judges agreed that the exclusion of Dr. Pinkerman’s testimony skewed the evidence against Melissa, 3 of those 10 joined 7 other judges and concluded that the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) barred any relief. Or, as Judge Southwick, the leader of the 3-judge tie-breaker said, “This case … is a clear example that justice to a defendant may necessitate a more comprehensive review of state-court evidentiary rulings than is presently permissible under” AEDPA.

Although the 7 dissenting judges agreed “[t]he state … court’s rejection of Lucio’s complete defense claim as irrelevant was irrational,” they produced 4 separate opinions expressing their outrage. Perhaps the most cogent summary of the injustice in Melissa’s case was offered by Judge Higginson:

A battered woman was convicted of capital murder because, in a case lacking direct evidence, prosecutors told the jury that, five hours into interrogation, in the middle of the night after the discovery of her dead child, Ms. Lucio accepted a seasoned interrogator’s suggestion that she was responsible, ultimately agreeing with him that she “did it.” The jury’s best proof of guilt was Ms. Lucio’s eventual capitulation blaming herself. That may be appropriate inference and argument, but what violates our Constitution and disregards binding, bedrock Supreme Court law, is the government’s simultaneous, successful effort excluding Ms. Lucio’s one answer to why she might capitulate, namely that a lifetime of abuse had made her acquiescent, desirous to please and to accept responsibility, and to avoid confrontation.

987 F. 3d at 517–18 (Higginson, Stewart and Elrod, JJ, dissenting).

There is Too Much Doubt to Execute Melissa Lucio

The case for Melissa Lucio’s conviction and death sentence is hollow at its core. A corrupt prosecutor used a false confession from a battered woman to persuade a jury to sentence her to die for the tragic death of her daughter. That alone is enough reason to halt Melissa’s execution. But in addition, a neurosurgeon and a pathologist who specializes in child-abuse deaths have vigorously disputed the state’s “expert” testimony about the nature of Mariah’s injuries and the cause of her death. At the penalty phase of Melissa’s trial, the prosecution relied on the testimony of a so-called expert on prison violence who has since been castigated by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for providing false testimony in another capital case. Meanwhile, the jury never heard Melissa’s own story—including her history of trauma and mental impairments.

Now, the District Attorney, the courts, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and the Governor must undertake a meaningful review of all the evidence supporting Melissa’s innocence, the coercive tactics used in her interrogation, and her lifetime of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Justice demands no less.

[1] Lucio v. Lumpkin, 987 F.3d at 493 (Higginbotham, J., dissenting). Judge Higgenbotham noted:

In its long superintendence of Melissa, DFPS [Texas Department of Family Protective Services, i.e., Texas’ CPS] never recorded or expressed concern that she physically abused any of the children in her care. To its credit, despite the difficulties of managing this large enterprise, it recognized that Melissa’s troubles centered on her inability to escape a succession of relationships with dominating and abusive men who to their own ends, encouraged her use of cocaine, a stimulant. That reality is strong footing for Melissa’s claimed denial of the opportunity to present a complete defense: that she only tried to accept the blame for the acts of others, a phenomenon of personality produced by her own lifetime of abuse in a world of abject poverty.

987 F.3d at 492–93.

Press Releases

February 8th

New Filing: Melissa Lucio, Who Suffered a Lifetime of Abuse, is Innocent and Her Execution Date Should be Withdrawn

(Brownsville, Texas) Attorneys for Melissa Lucio today filed a motion to withdraw or modify her April 27, 2022 execution date. The filing in the 138th Judicial District Court of Cameron County asserts that Melissa was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the accidental death of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah. Melissa, a Mexican-American from the Rio Grande Valley, is on death row despite forensic and eyewitness evidence that her daughter died from a head injury she suffered in a fall. Mariah’s death was a tragic accident, not a murder.

“Police immediately jumped to the conclusion that Mariah had been murdered and never considered medical and scientific evidence that could have established Mariah died after an accidental fall,” said Vanessa Potkin, Director of Special Litigation at the Innocence Project, and one of Melissa’s attorneys. “While pregnant with twins, Melissa was subjected to a five-hour, late-night and aggressive interrogation until, physically and emotionally exhausted, she agreed to say, ‘I guess I did it.’ Melissa suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse — starting when she was only six years old — and domestic violence, which made her especially vulnerable to the police’s coercive interrogation tactics.”

“Texas tore this family apart through the cruelty and injustice of Melissa’s wrongful conviction. Her children, mother, and siblings have been traumatized by Melissa’s arrest, prosecution, and death sentence. The State’s rush to set an execution date where there exists a strong innocence claim is alarming,” said Tivon Schardl, Chief of the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Defender for the Western District of Texas, and one of Melissa’s attorneys. “The State is also ignoring Melissa’s right to exercise her Roman Catholic faith and pending litigation in the United States Supreme Court that directly implicates this right.”

“There is too much doubt to execute Melissa Lucio. Too many questions remain about the results of the autopsy, the conduct of interrogators, prosecutors, and courts, and Melissa’s mental impairments,” said Potkin. “Withdrawing the execution date so that the District Attorney, the courts, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and the Governor can undertake a meaningful review of Melissa’s innocence case, the coercive tactics used in her interrogation, and her lifetime of sexual abuse and domestic violence is the common-sense position and imperative as a matter of basic fairness.”

Melissa Lucio’s Motion to Reconsider State’s Motion to Set Execution Date and to Withdraw or Modify the Execution Date can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/4tnjw7nk and Exhibits can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/3ebzpss2

Melissa’s lifetime of abuse made her especially vulnerable to coercive interrogation tactics that resulted in a false “confession.”

On February 15, 2007, as Melissa was moving her family to a new apartment, her two-year-old daughter Mariah fell down a steep flight of outdoor stairs which led to their apartment. Mariah had a mild physical disability that made her unstable when walking. She had fallen before. Mariah appeared uninjured after the fall, but two days later, she went down for a nap and did not wake up. (Motion at pp. 6-7.)

Within hours of losing her daughter, grieving, numb with shock, and pregnant with twins, Melissa was hauled into an interrogation room where armed, male police officers stood over her, yelled and berated her, and accused her of causing her daughter’s death.

Melissa repeatedly told the police that she did not kill her daughter. But the officers continued to threaten her and used coercive interrogation techniques that are notorious for their tendency to produce false confessions, particularly when applied to vulnerable people like Melissa who suffer from trauma. (Motion at pp. 8-11.)

After over five hours of interrogation, Melissa was emotionally and physically exhausted. In response to a Texas Ranger’s repeated demands, Melissa finally acquiesced and said, “I guess I did it.” (Motion at p. 8.)

At the time of her arrest, Melissa had no record of violence. Thousands of pages of protective service records and recorded interviews with her children—including visits with the children shortly before and immediately after Mariah’s death—show that Melissa was not abusive. (Motion at p. 30.)

Melissa’s conviction is based on two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions of women: false admissions made during police interrogation and faulty forensic evidence.  Approximately 40% of exonerated women were wrongly convicted of harming children or other loved ones in their care and nearly 70% were wrongfully convicted of crimes that never took place at all — events that were accidents, deaths by suicide, and fabricated — according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations.

Melissa was especially vulnerable to the aggressive, intimidating, and psychological interrogation tactics of the police and male authority figures.

When Melissa was just six, two adult male relatives began sexually abusing her, preying on her when her mother was not home. (Motion at p. 4.) As a young teenager, she was raped again.

At age 16, Melissa got married as a child bride. Although this marriage would otherwise be against the law in Texas, it was permitted because Melissa’s mother gave consent. Melissa’s first husband was a violent alcoholic and drug dealer. He abandoned Melissa after she gave birth to their five children. (Motion at p. 5.)

Melissa’s next partner continued the cycle of violence and abuse. She had seven children by her second husband. He beat Melissa, choked her, repeatedly raped her, and threatened to kill her. The family sunk deeper into poverty and was intermittently homeless. (Motion at pp. 5-6.) By the time Melissa was 35, she was struggling with physical abuse, PTSD, addiction, and poverty. She had given birth to 12 children and suffered multiple miscarriages.

These experiences, and years of supervision by protective services—for her inability to provide for the children, never abuse—left Melissa weak and obliging in the face of authority figures and aggressive men. A Texas Ranger recklessly exploited Melissa’s vulnerabilities, first being soothing, then angry, taking down her hair, then pushing her to copy his demonstration of physical abuse. (Motion at p. 10.)

“The State presented no physical evidence or witness testimony establishing that [Melissa] abused Mariah or any of her children, let alone killed Mariah,” seven Fifth Circuit judges wrote. (Motion at pp. 18-19)

But in 2008, Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos was seeking reelection and decided to prosecute Melissa for capital murder. Lacking any physical evidence or eyewitness linking Melissa to Mariah’s death, DA Villalobos’ team characterized Melissa’s acquiescence during the coercive interrogation as a “confession.” DA Villalobos was corrupt: he is now serving a 13-year federal prison sentence for bribery and extortion.

At Melissa’s capital trial, Melissa’s attorneys tried to present expert witnesses who could have explained that Melissa’s response to the Ranger showed the results of her traumatic experiences, not guilt. The DA objected, and the trial court ruled that this evidence was “irrelevant.” That ruling deprived Melissa of the only means she had of explaining why she took responsibility although Mariah’s death was an accident. (Motion at pp. 12-16.)

The trial court prohibited this testimony but allowed the Texas Ranger who coerced Melissa’s incriminating statement to testify for the prosecution that Melissa’s slumped posture, passivity, and failure to make eye contact told him that she was guilty. (Motion at pp. 11-12.)

The jury did not hear Melissa’s defense or mitigating factors. Melissa’s trial attorneys were not prepared for the penalty phase of the trial. Lead counsel hamstrung his mitigation specialist and expert until weeks before the trial began. As a result, Melissa’s mitigation specialist never completed her investigation and the jury never learned about the extent of Melissa’s history of child sexual abuse and domestic violence.

The jury never heard how Melissa’s history of trauma and abuse shaped her reactions immediately following her daughter’s death. Without that context, the jury convicted Melissa of capital murder. By contrast, Melissa’s partner, Mariah’s father, was sentenced to four years for endangering a child.

The omission of this mitigating evidence was particularly damaging because the prosecution had a weak case for death. Melissa had no prior record of violence and the State’s sole evidence of future dangerousness was the death of Mariah and a prior conviction for driving under the influence.

So far, the courts’ hands have been tied

A majority of judges have agreed that the exclusion of the psychologist’s expert testimony, which would have provided an explanation for Melissa’s acquiescence during the coercive interrogation, was wrong, but decided that current federal law limits the courts’ ability to intervene. (Motion at pp. 18-19.)

A panel of federal judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Melissa was denied her constitutional right to present a meaningful defense. In a unanimous three-judge opinion, the court ruled that providing an explanation for her incriminating statements during the interrogation, which she was not permitted to do, was the most significant evidence in the case since there was no physical evidence or witness testimony establishing that Melissa abused Mariah or any of her children, let alone killed Mariah.

Texas appealed to the full 17-member Fifth Circuit. Ten of 17 judges agreed that the exclusion of the psychologist’s testimony skewed the evidence against Melissa, but three of the 10 joined seven other judges in holding that the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) — a law that has been widely criticized for unfairly curtailing review, including of innocent people — barred relief for Melissa. Seven judges dissented from the opinion denying relief for Melissa with four writing separate dissenting opinions to express their outrage. (Motion at pp. 18-19.)

The motion provides further grounds for withdrawing or modifying Melissa’s execution date, including the need for additional state court proceedings on her actual innocence, intellectual disability, newly-discovered false testimony, and testimony based on “junk science;” the COVID pandemic has created obstacles to preparing claims and present a threat to the health of people who may attend the execution; the execution date does not allow Melissa a fair opportunity to present her case for clemency; ongoing litigation before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; and ongoing litigation challenging Texas Department of Criminal Justice rules that do not allow a prisoner to have their spiritual advisor pray audibly or lay hands on them in the execution chamber, thus violating their religious liberty. (Motion at pp. 2-3.)

A meaningful review of Melissa’s innocence case is needed before an irreversible injustice occurs.

A broad, diverse, and growing coalition, including the Innocence Network, Cornell Law School Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, domestic violence and battered women’s organizations, former prosecutors, experts in gender-based violence, and law professors have expressed support for Melissa and have stated that, as a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence, she was especially susceptible to making a false confession or incriminating remarks during a coercive interrogation.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, 186 people have been exonerated from death row, including 16 in Texas, and the number of people whose lives were taken before they were able to prove their innocence is unknown.

For more information on Melissa Lucio’s innocence case, please visit https://deathpenaltyworldwide.org/advocacy/melissa-lucio/ or  https://innocenceproject.org/who-is-melissa-lucio-death-penalty-texas-execution-innocent/

February 21st

On February 18, 2022, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), having reviewed the facts and law related to Melissa Lucio’s case, issued a resolution calling on officials not to execute her before the Commission has had an opportunity to reach a final decision in her case. The United States is a party to the treaty that created the Commission, the leading human rights enforcement agency in the Americas. Ms. Lucio is scheduled for execution on April 27, 2022.

Sandra Babcock, Clinical Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, who represents Melissa Lucio in the appeal to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, made the following statement:

“The Commission considered the evidence that Ms. Lucio’s “life was shaped by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse,” and that the same experiences shaped her response to a coercive interrogation. U.S. prosecutors and courts, including in Hidalgo County, Texas, have postponed execution dates to allow the Commission to complete its review process. We call on Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz to do the same, and to inform the court that he does not oppose Ms. Lucio’s pending motion to withdraw the execution date.”

En Español: 

La Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos ha revisado los hechos y la ley relacionados con el caso de Melissa Lucio y emitió una resolución en la que pide a los funcionarios que no la ejecuten antes de que la Comisión haya tenido la oportunidad de llegar a una decisión final en su caso. Estados Unidos es parte del tratado que creó la Comisión, la principal agencia de aplicación de los derechos humanos en las Américas.

 

Declaración de la Prof. Babcock en español:

“La Comisión consideró la evidencia de que la “vida de la señora Lucio fue moldeada por el abuso físico, emocional y sexual”, y que las mismas experiencias moldearon su respuesta a un interrogatorio coercitivo. Los fiscales y tribunales de EE. UU., incluso en el condado de Hidalgo, Texas, han pospuesto las fechas de ejecución para permitir que la Comisión termine su proceso de revisión. Llamamos al fiscal de distrito del condado de Cameron, Luis V. Sáenz, para que haga lo mismo e informe a la corte que no se opone a la moción pendiente de la Sra. Lucio para retirar la fecha de ejecución.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Precautionary Measure No. 1170-21 regarding Melissa Lucio can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/2p93h57m

IACHR’s Press Release can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/ycknddch

March 22nd

Contact: Laura Burstein at laura.burstein@squirepb.com

Melissa Lucio, Scheduled to be Executed on April 27, Appeals to Texas Pardons Board and Governor for Clemency

New Expert Analyses Show Melissa Was Wrongly Convicted and Condemned to Die for the Accidental Death of her Daughter

Widespread Call for Clemency from Hundreds of Texas Anti-Domestic Violence Groups, Baptists, Evangelicals and Catholics, Latino Organizations, and Exonerees; Five Jurors File Declarations Expressing Support for Relief

(Austin, Texas) Today, attorneys for Melissa Lucio submitted an application for clemency to Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. New evidence in the application that the jury never heard shows that Melissa, a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, was wrongly convicted and condemned to die for the accidental death of her daughter, Mariah. Melissa is scheduled for execution on April 27, 2022.

The application includes the declarations of seven nationally recognized experts, including scientists and forensic experts, who have reviewed the evidence and concluded that Melissa’s conviction was based upon (1) an unreliable “confession” that is essentially a mere “regurgitation” of facts and words officers fed to her during the five hour interrogation, and (2) unscientific, false evidence that misled the jury into believing that Mariah must have been killed by physical abuse, when the evidence is actually consistent with a conclusion that Mariah died from medical complications after a fall. The application also documents that Melissa asserted her innocence more than 100 times over five hours of the coercive interrogation.

In addition to the new forensic analyses, today’s application includes declarations from four jurors stating they have grave concerns about evidence withheld from them at Melissa’s capital trial and would support relief. An additional juror, an alternate who heard the evidence, but did not join deliberations, also submitted a declaration supporting relief for Melissa.

Hundreds of Texas anti-domestic violence groups, Baptist, Evangelical and Catholic leaders, Latino organizations, exonerees of wrongful convictions, and Melissa’s children also filed letters urging the Board and the Governor to grant Melissa clemency. (See Exhibits attached to application.)

“Based on a rush to judgement and a biased and inadequate death investigation, the State extracted an unreliable ‘confession’ and used false scientific evidence to convict Melissa Lucio of a crime she did not commit and in fact never occurred. What we know today is this: Mariah died from medical complications after an accidental fall. She was not murdered,” said Vanessa Potkin, Director of Special Litigation at the Innocence Project, and one of Melissa’s attorneys.

Melissa Lucio’s Application for the Commutation of Death Sentence to a Lesser Penalty or, in the Alternative, a 120-Reprieve from Execution can be viewed here:

Photos of Melissa Lucio, with photo credits in the lower right, are here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1kSE09LdKydflrYnt1KZKJlTfcU8hYtPe

A Rush to Judgment After a Tragedy

On February 15, 2007, as Melissa was moving her family to a new home, Mariah fell down a steep outdoor staircase leading to their apartment. After the fall, Mariah’s injuries did not appear life-threatening, but two days later she fell asleep on her parents’ bed and did not wake up. Mariah had physical disabilities that made her walking unstable and she had a history of falls, including a recent fall at a preschool program where she lost consciousness. At the time of her arrest, Melissa had no history of abusing her children or violence of any kind. (App. at pp. 2, 10-12.)

Two hours after Mariah’s death, Melissa — grieving and in shock — was hauled into an interrogation room where, for over five hours, armed, male police officers stood over her, yelled at her, threatened her, berated her parenting, and repeatedly refused to accept anything less than an admission to causing her daughter’s death. Melissa was especially vulnerable to the aggressive, intimidating, and psychologically manipulative interrogation tactics of the police and male authority figures due to her history of abuse, trauma, low IQ, and abnormally high levels of suggestibility and compliance. (App. at pp. 15-17.)

After hours of continuous interrogation, Melissa acquiesced, followed their directions, and gave in to their demands. She was sleep-deprived — it was 3:00 in the morning by then — and pregnant with twins, emotionally and physically exhausted by the threats and manipulation. (App. at pp. 15-17, 39.)

Two experts on false confessions (including police trainer and interrogation expert, David Thompson, and Dr. Gisli Gudjonsson, one of the world’s leading experts on false confessions) have analyzed Melissa’s interrogation and concluded that her admissions are “unreliable” and simply a “regurgitation” of the words and facts that interrogators fed to her throughout a highly coercive interrogation process. (App. at pp. 16, 39-42.)  

Lacking physical evidence or eyewitnesses connecting Melissa to Mariah’s death, Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos — who is now serving a 13-year federal sentence for bribery and extortion —  characterized Melissa’s acquiescence during the interrogation as a “confession” to murder. (App. at p. 19.)

Mariah’s Death Was Declared A Murder Before the Autopsy Even Began

The application states: “[The State’s Medical Examiner] Dr. Farley, who was told going into autopsy that Melissa had ‘confessed’ to abusing Mariah, and who was accompanied in the autopsy suite by two of the interrogating officers, assumed everything she observed was evidence of abuse and ignored all evidence to the contrary.” (App. at p. 20.)

At Melissa’s trial, the jury was told that Mariah’s injuries could only be explained by child abuse and complications from an accidental fall were impossible. That testimony was false. Dr. Farley failed in her duty to rule out nonviolent medical explanations for Mariah’s condition before rushing to agree with law enforcement’s judgment of abuse. (App. at pp. 19-20, 28.)

Seven experts, including nationally recognized medical and forensic scientists, have now reviewed the evidence in Melissa’s case.

Dr. Michael Laposata, the chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, concluded that at the time of her death Mariah had indications of Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC), a disorder that causes extensive bruising following a head trauma, like the injury that Mariah suffered from her fall, or an infection. (App. at p. 21.) As Dr. Laposata stated in his declaration, DIC can cause profound bruising throughout the body with no trauma whatsoever. “In patients with DIC, routine handling at home or in a hospital setting can cause significant bruising. It is not possible to tell the difference between a bruise from DIC and a bruise from abuse.” (Exhibit 6 at p. 2.) 

Dr. Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist, concluded that Mariah’s autopsy indicates she was in DIC at the time of her death. Her records also show she had a persistent high fever, and was sufficiently dehydrated to experience shock. The application states: “[S]teeped in extrinsic, biasing information, [Dr. Farley] failed to review any of Mariah’s medical history to look for any explanation or contributing cause to her injuries, conduct any basic laboratory tests to diagnose a coagulation disorder, or even perform simple testing to confirm the presence of infection or sepsis.” (App. at p. 28.)

Four jurors who served on the jury that sentenced Melissa to die and one alternate juror have expressed grave concerns about the evidence that they were not allowed to hear. Juror Johnny Galvan stated that “[t]he fact that you can’t pinpoint what caused Mariah’s death means that [Melissa] shouldn’t be executed.” Juror Alejandro Saldivar stated, “I think if I heard this evidence I may have decided differently.” (App. at p. 3.)

Melissa’s Statements Have the Hallmarks of a False Confession

Over five hours, Melissa asserted her innocence 86 times verbally and 35 times non-verbally (shaking her head), but police refused to accept any response that was not an admission of guilt—suggesting to Melissa that the interrogation would not stop unless she told them what they wanted to hear. (App. at p. 15.) While the vast majority of interrogations last 30 minutes to up to two hours, interrogations that elicit confessions later proven false last much longer. “[T]he length of Melissa’s nighttime interrogation further increased the risk that she would falsely incriminate herself.” (App at pp. 16, 36-37.)

The interrogating officers used manipulative, psychological techniques known to cause false confessions and disregarded Melissa’s multiple vulnerabilities, including her shock and grief over her daughter’s death hours earlier, physical and emotional exhaustion, sleep deprivation, her high levels of suggestibility and compliance, and low IQ. (App. at pp. 37-39.) According to experts, Melissa’s lifetime of sexual abuse, starting at six years old, and domestic violence at the hands of two partners, made her extremely vulnerable and susceptible to falsely confessing during an interrogation by male police officers, some armed, and one impliedly threatening to “beat [her] half to death like that little child was beat.” (App. at pp. 35, 42-47.)  

Doctor Gisli Gudjonsson, one of the world’s leading experts in false confessions, and David Thompson, an expert from one of the nation’s top interrogation training schools, have reviewed the record of Melissa’s case and determined that Melissa “was relentlessly pressured and extensively manipulated” throughout the many hours of interrogation and her statements bear the hallmarks of a coerced-compliant false confession. (App. at pp. 15-16.) Dr. Gudjonsson concluded that Melissa’s case presents a “very high” risk of false confession and in his “extensive forensic evaluation of cases of disputed confessions internationally, the number, severity, and combination of the risk factors involved during the lengthy interrogation are exceptional.” (App. at 16.) He further explained Melissa’s “history of negative/traumatic life events is associated with increased level of suggestibility, compliance, and false confession . . . because trauma significantly reduces the resilience of the trauma victims to cope with interrogative pressure.” (App. at p. 37.) 

Mr. Thompson noted, “Repetitive threats combined with promises or suggestions of leniency are known to incentivize innocent subjects to confess. These tactics, alongside Ms. Lucio’s susceptibility and her state of mind in a lengthy interrogation shortly after her daughter’s death, are known to have a substantial psychological impact on a subject’s decision-making” and found her statements are a result of fact-feeding or other tactics used by investigators. (Exhibit 11 at pp. 5-6.)  

False confessions elicited by guilt-presumptive police interrogations—like the interrogation at issue here—are a primary cause of wrongful conviction in the United States. Of the 67 women listed on the National Registry of Exonerations who were exonerated after a murder conviction, over one quarter (17/67) involved false confessions and nearly one third (20/67) involved child victims.

 Widespread Support Across Texas for Clemency

Alarmed by the prospect of executing an innocent woman, who is a lifelong survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence, a wide and diverse array of Texans are urging the Governor and the Board to grant Melissa clemency, including:

  • 225 anti-domestic violence/sexual assault organizations from Texas and across the country;
  • Over 130 Baptist, Evangelical and Catholic faith leaders in Texas, including more than 50 Baptist leaders, the Executive Director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas, and the Director of the Rio Grande Valley Baptist Association;
  • More than 30 groups that work on behalf of Latinos in Texas and across the U.S., including the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL);
  • Eighteen people wrongfully convicted of a crime in a Texas state court, including Hannah Overton and Michael Morton; and
  • Twenty-six death row exonerees, including two from Texas.

More than 100,000 people, including more than 20,000 in Texas, have signed an Innocence Project petition urging clemency for Melissa.

Melissa’s children are also urging the Governor and the Board not to execute their mother. They are Mariah’s brothers and sisters and Texas law requires that their wishes be taken into account. (App. at pp. 1-2, 49-51.)

The faith leaders wrote to the Governor and the Board:

In this case, you have an extraordinary opportunity to show compassion for a woman and a family that has already suffered greatly, first from the tragic death of Mariah and then by the incarceration of Melissa. Through the clemency process, you alone can compensate for the rigidities of the judicial system, which has been unable to correct this injustice despite support from numerous federal judges. . . .  In accordance with the shared values of our diverse religious and faith traditions and in the name of mercy, we respectfully urge you to commute her death sentence. (App. at p. 6.)

“In Melissa’s case, the legal system’s failure to acknowledge the effects of child sexual abuse and domestic violence led directly to the conviction and death sentence of an innocent woman. Meanwhile, her abusive partner is now a free man. This is why Texans who have spent their lives helping survivors of gender-based violence are pleading with the Board and the Governor to grant clemency to Melissa Lucio,” said Professor Sandra Babcock, Director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, and one of Ms. Lucio’s attorneys.

On March 27th, a bipartisan group of more than 80 members of the Texas House of Representatives sent the attached letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles urging clemency for Melissa Lucio. The legislators cite the serious doubts about the reliability of Ms. Lucio’s conviction, the disparity in her sentencing, and her deep Catholic faith.

April 25th

 

BREAKING NEWS: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has just issued a Stay of Execution for Melissa Lucio and ordered the 138th Judicial District Court of Cameron Country to consider new evidence of her innocence in the death of her daughter, Mariah.

 

Melissa Lucio made the following statement and her attorneys made the statements further below.

 

Melissa Lucio Statement:

“I thank God for my life. I have always trusted in Him. I am grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in my heart today and always. I am grateful to have more days to be a mother to my children and a grandmother to my grandchildren. I will use my time to help bring them to Christ. I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf.”

 

— Melissa Lucio
— April 25, 2022

 

Tivon Schardl, Capital Habeas Unit Chief of the Federal Defender for the Western District of Texas and one of Melissa’s attorneys, made the following statement:

 

“We know that Melissa’s children—Mariah’s brothers and sisters—and Mariah’s grandparents, aunts and uncles are all relieved and grateful that Melissa’s life will not be taken by the State of Texas. And we believe the court honored Mariah’s memory because Melissa is innocent. Melissa is entitled to a new, fair trial. The people of Texas are entitled to a new, fair trial. Texans should be grateful and proud that the Court of Criminal Appeals has given Melissa’s legal team the opportunity to present the new evidence of Melissa’s innocence to the Cameron County district court.

“We are profoundly grateful to the hundreds of thousands of Texans and people around the U.S. and the world who advocated for Melissa, including Representatives Jeff Leach and Joe Moody, Senator Eddie Lucio, and more than 100 Texas legislators; 225 anti-domestic violence/sexual assault organizations, including the Texas Council on Family Violence, the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, Friendship of Women, and the Lone Star Justice Alliance; over 130 faith leaders, including Pastor Jesse Rincones of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas; and more than 30 groups that work on behalf of Latinos, including the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.”

— Tivon Schardl, Capital Habeas Unit Chief of the Federal Defender for the Western District of Texas
— April 25, 2022

 

Vanessa Potkin, Director of Special Litigation at the Innocence Project and one of Melissa’s attorneys, made the following statement:

“The Court of Criminal Appeals did the right thing by stopping Melissa’s execution. Medical evidence shows that Mariah’s death was consistent with an accident. But for the State’s use of false testimony, no juror would have voted to convict Melissa of capital murder because no murder occurred.

“It would have shocked the public’s conscience for Melissa to be put to death based on false and incomplete medical evidence for a crime that never even happened. All of the new evidence of her innocence has never before been considered by any court. The Court’s stay allows us to continue fighting alongside Melissa to overturn her wrongful conviction.”

 

— Vanessa Potkin, Director of Special Litigation at the Innocence Project
— April 25, 2022

 

Prof. Sandra Babcock, Director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and one of Melissa’s attorneys, made the following statement:

“Melissa’s life matters. The Court’s decision paves the way for Melissa to present evidence of her innocence that should have been heard by the jury that condemned her to death fourteen years ago. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, and now locked away for these past 15 years, Melissa’s voice and experiences have never been valued. The Court’s decision signals its willingness to finally hear Melissa’s side of the story. If the district court hears all the evidence of Melissa’s innocence, and the gender bias that infected the police investigation and prosecution, we are confident she will return home to her family.”

— Professor Sandra Babcock, Director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide
— April 25, 2022

 

The Court’s Stay Order re: Application for Post-Conviction and Habeas Petition: https://tinyurl.com/42h4zb6n

 

Melissa Lucio’s First Subsequent Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/2paxuabx

For more information, please contact: Laura Burstein at laura.burstein@squirepb.com or 202-669-3411. Melissa Lucio’s case summary follows:

April 14th

BIPARTISAN GROUP OF 20 TEXAS SENATORS SIGN ON TO LETTER TO THE BOARD OF
PARDONS AND PAROLES

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Contact: Jaime Villarreal, Jr., General Counsel
Thursday April 14, 2022 jaime.villarreal@senate.texas.gov

BROWNSVILLE, TX – Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) issued the following statement regarding the bipartisan support received for Melissa Lucio:

“I am proud to announce that 19 of my Senate colleagues joined me in writing to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking that the Board recommend to Gov. Abbott that he cancel Melissa Lucio’s upcoming execution. Without a recommendation from the Board to the contrary, the State of Texas will execute Ms. Lucio on April 27, making her the first Latina in the United States to be executed since the resumption of the death penalty in the 1970s.

“Among the constitutional deficiencies and improprieties Ms. Lucio faced during her trial, new evidence has surfaced that calls Ms. Lucio’s conviction into question. Accordingly, she deserves a reprieve from execution until her defense team can gather the new evidence needed to prove her innocence.

“The death penalty is the ultimate punishment in Texas, and our state has an absolute obligation to ensure that it never executes an innocent person. I will continue to pray for everyone involved in this tragedy and will continue to urge our leaders to refrain from making a mistake it cannot undo.”

Read the full letter here
###

Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D – Harlingen) represents Cameron, Hidalgo, Kenedy, Kleberg, and Willacy Counties. He is a member of the Senate Committees on State Affairs; Natural Resources & Economic Development; and of the Select Committees on Redistricting; and, Texas Ports. He is also member of DSHS COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Advisory Panel and has been an ex-officio member of the DSHS Task Force of Border Public Health Officials since 2017. Elected in 1991, Lucio is third in seniority in the Texas Senate.

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April 15th

For Immediate Release: April 15, 2022Contact: Laura Burstein at laura.burstein@squirepb.com or 202-669-3411

Melissa Lucio Petitions Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for Stay of Execution and Reversal of Her Conviction and Death Sentence

Attorneys Argue Newly Discovered Evidence Shows Lucio is Innocent 

(Austin, Texas) Attorneys for Melissa Lucio today filed a 242-page application for a writ of habeas corpus asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stay her scheduled April 27, 2022 execution and vacate her conviction and death sentence. The filing represents the first time the courts will have the opportunity to consider the new scientific and expert evidence showing that Melissa’s conviction was based on an unreliable, coerced “confession” and unscientific false evidence that misled the jury. Melissa has been condemned to die for the accidental death of her daughter, Mariah. “If the jury had heard evidence about the coercive tactics used in Melissa’s interrogation and the medical evidence showing that Mariah’s cause of death was consistent with an accident, they would have found there was no murder, Melissa would have been acquitted, and she would be preparing for Easter mass with her children, not facing execution. She deserves a new trial,” said Vanessa Potkin, Director of Special Litigation at the Innocence Project and one of Melissa’s attorneys.The petition also details how the police investigation and prosecution were infected by gender bias. “Police targeted Melissa because she did not fit their image of how a grieving mother should behave. They used interrogation tactics that replicated the dynamics of domestic violence, that told her she had no choice but to acquiesce to their insistence that she take responsibility for Mariah’s injuries. New linguistic analysis shows that while the police treated Melissa as a suspect, they treated her partner like an innocent victim—even though he was also Mariah’s caretaker, and had a history of intra-familial violence. He is now a free man,” said Professor Sandra Babcock, Director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, and one of Ms. Lucio’s attorneys.“We know that corruption ran deep in the District Attorney’s Office under Armando Villalobos. We owe it to Mariah and her siblings to make sure a new panel of twelve jurors hears all the evidence of their mother’s innocence,” said Tivon Schardl, Capital Habeas Unit Chief of the Federal Defender for the Western District of Texas and one of Melissa’s attorneys.

Melissa Lucio’s First Subsequent Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/2paxuabx 

Melissa Lucio Case Summary

Melissa Lucio, a Mexican-American who is facing execution in Texas on April 27, 2022, was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death after her daughter, Mariah, sustained injuries from an accidental fall. Although Melissa repeatedly told the police that she did not kill her daughter, they continued to interrogate her for five hours until she agreed, falsely, to take responsibility for some of her daughter’s injuries.

Melissa suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse and domestic violence, which made her especially vulnerable to the police’s coercive interrogation tactics. Melissa had no history of violence, but her husband, Mariah’s father, was found guilty of child endangerment and sentenced to four years, even though he had a history of assaultive behavior.

Struck by the sentencing disparity and grave doubts about the reliability of Melissa’s conviction, a bipartisan group of more than 80 members of the Texas House of Representatives and a bipartisan group of 20 members of the Texas Senate oppose Melissa’s execution. Hundreds of Texas anti-domestic violence groups, Baptist, Evangelical and Catholic leaders, Latino organizations, exonerees of wrongful convictions, and Melissa’s children are urging the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Abbott to grant Melissa clemency.Melissa’s execution would cause further suffering for her children who lost their sister 15 years ago. It would also be the first execution of a Latina in the United States since the resumption of the death penalty in the 1970s.

Clemency Application Cites New Evidence Supporting Melissa’s Innocence Claim

On March 22, 2022, Melissa’s attorneys submitted an application for clemency to the Governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles which includes the declarations of seven nationally recognized experts, including experts in false confessions and medical and forensic experts, who have reviewed the evidence and concluded that Melissa’s conviction was based upon:

 (1) an unreliable “confession” that is essentially a mere “regurgitation” of facts and words officers fed to her during the five hour interrogation, and

(2) unscientific, false evidence that misled the jury into believing that Mariah must have been killed by physical abuse, when the evidence is actually consistent with a conclusion that Mariah died from medical complications after a fall.

The application also documents that Melissa asserted her innocence more than 100 times over five hours of the coercive interrogation.

In addition to the new forensic analyses, the clemency application includes declarations from five jurors stating they have grave concerns about evidence withheld from them at Melissa’s capital trial and would support relief. An additional juror, an alternate who heard the evidence, but did not join deliberations, also submitted a declaration supporting relief for Melissa.The District Attorney, the courts, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and the Governor must undertake a meaningful review of Melissa’s case. That review can only happen if the execution date is withdrawn or stayed.

A Rush to Judgment After a TragedyOn February 15, 2007, as Melissa was moving her family to a new home, Mariah fell down a steep outdoor staircase leading to their apartment. After the fall, Mariah’s injuries did not appear life-threatening, but two days later she fell asleep on her parents’ bed and did not wake up. Mariah had physical disabilities that made her walking unstable and she had a history of falls, including a recent fall at a preschool program where she lost consciousness. At the time of her arrest, Melissa had no history of abusing her children or violence of any kind. (App. at pp. 2, 10-12.)

Two hours after Mariah’s death, Melissa — grieving and in shock — was hauled into an interrogation room where, for over five hours, armed, male police officers stood over her, yelled at her, threatened her, berated her parenting, and repeatedly refused to accept anything less than an admission to causing her daughter’s death. Melissa was especially vulnerable to the aggressive, intimidating, and psychologically manipulative interrogation tactics of the police and male authority figures due to her history of abuse, trauma, low IQ, and abnormally high levels of suggestibility and compliance. (App. at pp. 15-17.)After hours of continuous interrogation, Melissa acquiesced, followed their directions, and gave in to their demands. She was sleep-deprived — it was early in the morning by then — and pregnant with twins, emotionally and physically exhausted by the threats and manipulation. (App. at pp. 15-17, 39.) Two experts on false confessions (including police trainer and interrogation expert, David Thompson, and Dr. Gisli Gudjonsson, one of the world’s leading experts on false confessions) have analyzed Melissa’s interrogation and concluded that her admissions are “unreliable” and simply a “regurgitation” of the words and facts that interrogators fed to her throughout a highly coercive interrogation process. (App. at pp. 16, 39-42.)  Lacking physical evidence or eyewitnesses connecting Melissa to Mariah’s death, Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos — who is now serving a 13-year federal sentence for bribery and extortion — characterized Melissa’s acquiescence during the interrogation as a “confession” to murder. (App. at p. 19.)

Mariah’s Death Was Declared a Murder Before the Autopsy Even BeganThe application states: “[The State’s Medical Examiner] Dr. Farley, who was told going into autopsy that Melissa had ‘confessed’ to abusing Mariah, and who was accompanied in the autopsy suite by two of the interrogating officers, assumed everything she observed was evidence of abuse and ignored all evidence to the contrary.” (App. at p. 20.)

At Melissa’s trial, the jury was told that Mariah’s injuries could only be explained by child abuse and complications from an accidental fall were impossible. That testimony was false. Dr. Farley failed in her duty to rule out nonviolent medical explanations for Mariah’s condition before rushing to agree with law enforcement’s judgment of abuse. (App. at pp. 19-20, 28.)

Seven experts, including nationally recognized medical and forensic scientists, have now reviewed the evidence in Melissa’s case. Dr. Michael Laposata, the chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, concluded that at the time of her death Mariah had indications of Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC), a disorder that causes extensive bruising following a head trauma, like the injury that Mariah suffered from her fall, or an infection. (App. at p. 21.)As Dr. Laposata stated in his declaration, DIC can cause profound bruising throughout the body with no trauma whatsoever. “In patients with DIC, routine handling at home or in a hospital setting can cause significant bruising. It is not possible to tell the difference between a bruise from DIC and a bruise from abuse.” (Exhibit 6 at p. 2.)

Dr. Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist, concluded that Mariah’s autopsy indicates she was in DIC at the time of her death. Her records also show she had a persistent high fever, and was sufficiently dehydrated to experience shock. The application states: “[S]teeped in extrinsic, biasing information, [Dr. Farley] failed to review any of Mariah’s medical history to look for any explanation or contributing cause to her injuries, conduct any basic laboratory tests to diagnose a coagulation disorder, or even perform simple testing to confirm the presence of infection or sepsis.” (App. at p. 28.)

Five jurors who served on the jury that sentenced Melissa to die and one alternate juror have expressed grave concerns about the evidence that they were not allowed to hear. Juror Johnny Galvan stated that “[t]he fact that you can’t pinpoint what caused Mariah’s death means that [Melissa] shouldn’t be executed.” Juror Alejandro Saldivar stated, “I think if I heard this evidence I may have decided differently.” (App. at p. 3.)

Melissa’s Lifetime of Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence Made Her Especially Vulnerable to Coercive Interrogation Tactics

Melissa’s uncle and stepfather sexually abused her over a period of years, starting when she was six years old. She told her mother, but nothing was done. As a young teenager, she was raped again by an adult man. (App. at p. 44.)At age 16, Melissa got married, becoming a child bride, to escape the abuse she suffered and witnessed in her childhood home. (App. at p. 45.) Melissa’s first husband was a violent alcoholic, according to testimony at trial (App. at p. 45.) He abandoned Melissa after she gave birth to five children. Melissa’s next partner continued the cycle of violence and abuse. She had seven children by her second husband. He beat Melissa, choked her, threatened to kill her, and repeatedly raped her. Some of Melissa’s children also reported that he struck them. (App. at pp. 45-47.)

The family sunk deeper into poverty and was intermittently homeless. Melissa worked cleaning houses and sought other jobs when she could. Her partner Robert was jailed for months at a time. By the time Melissa was 35, she was struggling with abuse, cognitive and psychological impairments, addiction, and poverty. She had given birth to 12 children and suffered multiple miscarriages. (App. at p. 9.)

Melissa’s Statements Have the Hallmarks of a False ConfessionOver five hours, Melissa asserted her innocence 86 times verbally and 35 times non-verbally (shaking her head), but police refused to accept any response that was not an admission of guilt—suggesting to Melissa that the interrogation would not stop unless she told them what they wanted to hear. (App. at p. 15.) While the vast majority of interrogations last 30 minutes to up to two hours, interrogations that elicit confessions later proven false last much longer. “[T]he length of Melissa’s nighttime interrogation further increased the risk that she would falsely incriminate herself.” (App at pp. 16, 36-37.)

The interrogating officers used manipulative, psychological techniques known to cause false confessions and disregarded Melissa’s multiple vulnerabilities, including her shock and grief over her daughter’s death hours earlier, physical and emotional exhaustion, sleep deprivation, her high levels of suggestibility and compliance, and low IQ. (App. at pp. 37-39.) According to experts, Melissa’s lifetime of sexual abuse, starting at six years old, and domestic violence at the hands of two partners, made her extremely vulnerable and susceptible to falsely confessing during an interrogation by male police officers, some armed. One detective yelled at her: “[i]f I beat you half to death like that little child was beat, I bet you you’d die too.” (App. at pp. 35, 42-47.)  Doctor Gisli Gudjonsson, one of the world’s leading experts in false confessions, and David Thompson, an expert from one of the nation’s top interrogation training schools, have reviewed the record of Melissa’s case and determined that Melissa “was relentlessly pressured and extensively manipulated” throughout the many hours of interrogation and her statements bear the hallmarks of a coerced-compliant false confession. (App. at pp. 15-16.)Dr. Gudjonsson concluded that Melissa’s case presents a “very high” risk of false confession and in his “extensive forensic evaluation of cases of disputed confessions internationally, the number, severity, and combination of the risk factors involved during the lengthy interrogation are exceptional.” (App. at 16.) He further explained Melissa’s “history of negative/traumatic life events is associated with increased level of suggestibility, compliance, and false confession . . . because trauma significantly reduces the resilience of the trauma victims to cope with interrogative pressure.” (App. at p. 37.)

Mr. Thompson noted, “[r]epetitive threats combined with promises or suggestions of leniency are known to incentivize innocent subjects to confess. These tactics, alongside Ms. Lucio’s susceptibility and her state of mind in a lengthy interrogation shortly after her daughter’s death, are known to have a substantial psychological impact on a subject’s decision-making” and found her statements are a result of fact-feeding or other tactics used by investigators. (Exhibit 11 at pp. 5-6.)

False confessions elicited by guilt-presumptive police interrogations—like the interrogation at issue here—are a primary cause of wrongful conviction in the United States. Of the 67 women listed on the National Registry of Exonerations who were exonerated after a murder conviction, over one quarter (17/67) involved false confessions and nearly one third (20/67) involved child victims.

 What the Jury Never Heard

The jury never heard how Melissa’s history of trauma and abuse shaped her reactions immediately following her daughter’s death. Without that context, the jury convicted Melissa of capital murder. (App. at p. 13.)Melissa’s trial attorneys were not prepared for the penalty phase of the trial. Lead counsel hamstrung his mitigation specialist and expert until weeks before the trial began. As a result, Melissa’s mitigation specialist never completed her investigation and the jury never learned about the extent of Melissa’s history of child sexual abuse and domestic violence.The omission of this mitigating evidence was particularly damaging because the prosecution had a weak case for death. Melissa had no prior record of violence and the State’s sole evidence of future dangerousness was the death of Mariah and a prior conviction for driving under the influence. (App. at p. 62.)

So Far, the Courts’ Hands Have Been TiedA majority of judges have agreed that the trial court was wrong to exclude the psychologist’s expert testimony, which would have provided an explanation for Melissa’s acquiescence during the coercive interrogation. “The State presented no physical evidence or witness testimony establishing that [Melissa] abused Mariah or any of her children, let alone killed Mariah,” seven Fifth Circuit judges wrote. By excluding expert explanations for Melissa’s remarks during her interrogation, the trial court wrongfully barred Melissa’s right to present her defense. (App. at p. 13.) But a divided Fifth Circuit believed that current federal law cuts off the courts’ ability to correct this injustice.

On February 18, 2022, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a resolution calling on officials not to execute Melissa before the Commission has had an opportunity to reach a final decision in her case. The Commission considered the evidence that Melissa’s “life was shaped by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse,” and that the same experiences shaped her response to a coercive interrogation.

Disparate Sentencing in Melissa’s CaseMelissa regrets not getting medical care for Mariah earlier, but she is not guilty of murder. Her husband, Mariah’s father, was found guilty of child endangerment and sentenced to four years, even though he had a history of assaultive behavior. At most, a charge of neglect was more appropriate for Melissa than murder. (App. at p. 3.)Corrupt Cameron County DA Villalobos personally led Melissa’s prosecution. In 2007, in exchange for a bribe, he enabled the release and flight from justice of Amit Livingston, a man who had killed his estranged girlfriend. As DA Villalobos was scheming to facilitate the release of this male batterer, he was pursuing the death penalty against a woman who was a lifelong victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Former DA Villalobos is now serving a 13-year federal sentence for bribery and extortion. (App. at p. 19.)

Melissa is a Person of Deep Catholic Faith Who Walks with GodMelissa grew up without much religious instruction, but began her walk with God on September 26, 2014. She is a person of deep Catholic faith who attends Catholic mass services every Monday and meets individually with a pastor, Deacon Ronnie, on Thursdays and Sundays. In 2015, Melissa and other women on death row formed a Bible study group where, she says, “we all help each other.” Her main concern now is for her family, especially having her children support each other. Because of Melissa, her son John has also devoted himself to God, and she reads a Bible verse to him at the beginning of each of their visits. (App. at pp. 54-61.)

Widespread Support Across Texas for ClemencyAlarmed by the prospect of executing an innocent woman, who is a lifelong survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence, a wide and diverse array of Texans are urging the Governor and the Board to grant Melissa clemency, including:

  • bipartisan group of more than 80 members of the Texas House of Representatives and 20 State Senators;
  • 225 anti-domestic violence/sexual assault organizations from Texas and across the country;
  • Over 130 Baptist, Evangelical and Catholic faith leaders in Texas, including more than 50 Baptist leaders, the Executive Director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas, and the Director of the Rio Grande Valley Baptist Association;
  • More than 30 groups that work on behalf of Latinos in Texas and across the U.S., including the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL);
  • Eighteen people wrongfully convicted of a crime in a Texas state court, including Hannah Overton and Michael Morton; and
  • Twenty-six death row exonerees, including two from Texas.

Melissa’s children are also urging the Governor and the Board not to execute their mother. They are Mariah’s brothers and sisters and Texas law requires that their wishes be taken into account. (App. at pp. 1-2, 49-51.)

More than 200,000 people, including more than 33,000 in Texas, have signed an Innocence Project petition urging clemency for Melissa.

Abused Latinas and Wrongful ConvictionsOf the 67 women listed on the National Registry of Exonerations who were exonerated after a murder conviction, over one quarter (17/67) involved false confessions and nearly one third (20/67) involved child victims.

Roughly one in three Latinas will suffer intimate partner violence in her lifetime, but the rates are higher for Latinas like Melissa who struggle with poverty and who were sexually abused as children. Also, research indicates that police tend to disbelieve women of color when they report domestic violence. At Melissa’s death penalty trial, the prosecution belittled the evidence of Melissa’s history of sexual abuse and domestic violence. (See trial transcript vol. 39 pp. 161-62.)According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, 187 people have been exonerated from death row, including 16 in Texas, and the number of people whose lives were taken before they were able to prove their innocence is unknown.

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April 25

With New Evidence, Melissa Lucio Again Asks Trial Court to Withdraw Her Execution Date

JUST IN: Attorneys for Melissa Lucio this morning filed a supplement to her Motion to Withdraw the Order Setting the Execution Date in the 138th Judicial District Court of Cameron County. The filing states, “The Subsequent Application presents overwhelming evidence that the judgment this Court set for execution on April 27, 2022, represents a miscarriage of justice,” and asks the Court to withdraw its order setting Ms. Lucio’s execution date.Ms. Lucio was wrongfully convicted and faces execution on Wednesday at 6 p.m. CT for the accidental death of her daughter, Mariah, despite new scientific evidence showing that Mariah’s injuries were consistent with an accidental fall, not a murder.Ms. Lucio’s motion to withdraw her April 27, 2022 execution date has been pending before the district court since February 8, 2022. The latest supplemental materials are Ms. Lucio’s Subsequent Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus and Exhibits, filed on April 15, 2022, which includes more than 240 pages and 58 exhibits.Attached to Ms. Lucio’s most recent filing is the transcript of the District Attorney for Cameron County Luis V. Saenz’s sworn testimony to the Texas House Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform. Mr. Saenz vowed to the legislature that he would ask the trial court to withdraw the execution date if Ms. Lucio had motions pending an no stay in place. With the execution two days away, Ms. Lucio has four motions pending in the trial court, three petitions pending in the Court of Criminal Appeals, and a suggestion for reconsideration pending in the Court of Criminal Appeals. No stay is in place.

  • Melissa Lucio’s Third Supplemental Submission in Support of Motion to Reconsider State’s Motion to Set Execution Date can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/46pdhydk

Melissa Lucio’s First Subsequent Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus, filed on April 15, 2022, can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/2paxuabx Melissa Lucio’s Motion to Reconsider State’s Motion to Set Execution Date and to Withdraw or Modify the Execution Date, filed on February 8, 2022, can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/4tnjw7nk and Exhibits can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/3ebzpss2Background on Melissa Lucio’s innocence case appears below.

Melissa Lucio Case Summary

A Victim of Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence Wrongly Convicted and Condemned to Die for the Accidental Death of Her Daughter

Case Status

On March 22, 2022, attorneys for Melissa Lucio submitted an application for clemency to Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. New evidence in the application that the jury never heard shows that Melissa, a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, was wrongly convicted and condemned to die for the accidental death of her daughter, Mariah. On April 12, 2022, Melissa’s attorneys submitted a supplemental clemency application, which included a new declaration from a fifth juror — Melissa’s jury foreperson — who joined the calls of four other jurors and an alternate juror to halt Melissa’s execution or grant her a new trial where new evidence of her innocence can be considered. Melissa’s application for clemency is pending. The Board is expected to consider Melissa’s clemency application and make a recommendation to the Governor on April 25, 2022. On April 15, 2022, Melissa’s attorneys filed a 242-page application for a writ of habeas corpus asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stay her scheduled April 27, 2022 execution and vacate her conviction and death sentence. The filing represents the first time any court will have the opportunity to consider the new scientific and expert evidence showing that Melissa’s conviction was based on an unreliable, coerced “confession” and unscientific false evidence that misled the jury. This application is pending before the Court of Criminal Appeals and other litigation is pending in the federal courts. Links to these materials are below:

Clemency Application: https://tinyurl.com/f5jx4wztClemency Exhibits Volume I: https://tinyurl.com/2p92tzrfClemency Exhibits Volume II: https://tinyurl.com/45vrbjhnPDF of Table of Contents/Index: https://tinyurl.com/msfkzyhwSupplemental Clemency Application: https://tinyurl.com/2s39jsahSupplemental Clemency Exhibits: https://tinyurl.com/24sa5aucFirst Subsequent Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus: https://tinyurl.com/2paxuabx

On February 8, 2022, a Motion to Withdraw or Modify the Execution Date was filed by Melissa’s legal team with the Cameron County District Court. If he chose to, the Cameron County District Attorney, Luis Saenz, could ask the Court to grant that motion. Also, there are four stay motions pending in the CCA that D.A. Saenz could support or declare no opposition to.

Case SummaryMelissa Lucio, a Mexican-American who is facing execution in Texas on April 27, 2022, was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death after her daughter, Mariah, sustained injuries from an accidental fall. Although Melissa repeatedly told the police that she did not kill her daughter, they continued to interrogate her for five hours until she agreed, falsely, to take responsibility for some of her daughter’s injuries.

Melissa suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse and domestic violence, which made her especially vulnerable to the police’s coercive interrogation tactics. Melissa had no history of violence, but her husband, Mariah’s father, was found guilty of child endangerment and sentenced to four years, even though he had a history of assaultive behavior.

Struck by the sentencing disparity and grave doubts about the reliability of Melissa’s conviction, a bipartisan group of more than 80 members of the Texas House of Representatives and a bipartisan group of 20 members of the Texas Senate oppose Melissa’s execution. Hundreds of Texas anti-domestic violence groups, Baptist, Evangelical and Catholic leaders, Latino organizations, exonerees of wrongful convictions, and Melissa’s children are urging the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Abbott to grant Melissa clemency.Melissa’s execution would cause further suffering for her children who lost their sister 15 years ago. It would also be the first execution of a Latina in the United States since the resumption of the death penalty in the 1970s.

Clemency Application Cites New Evidence Supporting Melissa’s Innocence ClaimOn March 22, 2022, Melissa’s attorneys submitted an application for clemency to the Governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles which includes the declarations of seven nationally recognized experts, including experts in false confessions and medical and forensic experts, who have reviewed the evidence and concluded that Melissa’s conviction was based upon:

(1) an unreliable “confession” that is essentially a mere “regurgitation” of facts and words officers fed to her during the five hour interrogation, and

(2) unscientific, false evidence that misled the jury into believing that Mariah must have been killed by physical abuse, when the evidence is actually consistent with a conclusion that Mariah died from medical complications after a fall.

The application also documents that Melissa asserted her innocence more than 100 times over five hours of the coercive interrogation.

In addition to the new forensic analyses, the clemency application includes declarations from five jurors stating they have grave concerns about evidence withheld from them at Melissa’s capital trial and would support relief. An additional juror, an alternate who heard the evidence, but did not join deliberations, also submitted a declaration supporting relief for Melissa.The District Attorney, the courts, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and the Governor must undertake a meaningful review of Melissa’s case. That review can only happen if the execution date is withdrawn or stayed.

A Rush to Judgment After a Tragedy On February 15, 2007, as Melissa was moving her family to a new home, Mariah fell down a steep outdoor staircase leading to their apartment. After the fall, Mariah’s injuries did not appear life-threatening, but two days later she fell asleep on her parents’ bed and did not wake up. Mariah had physical disabilities that made her walking unstable and she had a history of falls, including a recent fall at a preschool program where she lost consciousness. At the time of her arrest, Melissa had no history of abusing her children or violence of any kind. (App. at pp. 2, 10-12.)

Two hours after Mariah’s death, Melissa — grieving and in shock — was hauled into an interrogation room where, for over five hours, armed, male police officers stood over her, yelled at her, threatened her, berated her parenting, and repeatedly refused to accept anything less than an admission to causing her daughter’s death. Melissa was especially vulnerable to the aggressive, intimidating, and psychologically manipulative interrogation tactics of the police and male authority figures due to her history of abuse, trauma, low IQ, and abnormally high levels of suggestibility and compliance. (App. at pp. 15-17.)

After hours of continuous interrogation, Melissa acquiesced, followed their directions, and gave in to their demands. She was sleep-deprived — it was early in the morning by then — and pregnant with twins, emotionally and physically exhausted by the threats and manipulation. (App. at pp. 15-17, 39.) Two experts on false confessions (including police trainer and interrogation expert, David Thompson, and Dr. Gisli Gudjonsson, one of the world’s leading experts on false confessions) have analyzed Melissa’s interrogation and concluded that her admissions are “unreliable” and simply a “regurgitation” of the words and facts that interrogators fed to her throughout a highly coercive interrogation process. (App. at pp. 16, 39-42.)  Lacking physical evidence or eyewitnesses connecting Melissa to Mariah’s death, Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos — who is now serving a 13-year federal sentence for bribery and extortion — characterized Melissa’s acquiescence during the interrogation as a “confession” to murder. (App. at p. 19.)

Mariah’s Death Was Declared a Murder Before the Autopsy Even BeganThe application states: “[The State’s Medical Examiner] Dr. Farley, who was told going into autopsy that Melissa had ‘confessed’ to abusing Mariah, and who was accompanied in the autopsy suite by two of the interrogating officers, assumed everything she observed was evidence of abuse and ignored all evidence to the contrary.” (App. at p. 20.)At Melissa’s trial, the jury was told that Mariah’s injuries could only be explained by child abuse and complications from an accidental fall were impossible. That testimony was false. Dr. Farley failed in her duty to rule out nonviolent medical explanations for Mariah’s condition before rushing to agree with law enforcement’s judgment of abuse. (App. at pp. 19-20, 28.)

Seven experts, including nationally recognized medical and forensic scientists, have now reviewed the evidence in Melissa’s case. Dr. Michael Laposata, the chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, concluded that at the time of her death Mariah had indications of Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC), a disorder that causes extensive bruising following a head trauma, like the injury that Mariah suffered from her fall, or an infection. (App. at p. 21.)As Dr. Laposata stated in his declaration, DIC can cause profound bruising throughout the body with no trauma whatsoever. “In patients with DIC, routine handling at home or in a hospital setting can cause significant bruising. It is not possible to tell the difference between a bruise from DIC and a bruise from abuse.” (Exhibit 6 at p. 2.)

Dr. Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist, concluded that Mariah’s autopsy indicates she was in DIC at the time of her death. Her records also show she had a persistent high fever, and was sufficiently dehydrated to experience shock. The application states: “[S]teeped in extrinsic, biasing information, [Dr. Farley] failed to review any of Mariah’s medical history to look for any explanation or contributing cause to her injuries, conduct any basic laboratory tests to diagnose a coagulation disorder, or even perform simple testing to confirm the presence of infection or sepsis.” (App. at p. 28.) Dr. Harry Davis, the doctor responsible for Mariah’s emergency room care, explained in his affidavit that it is highly unusual to see a child with an elevated temperature when the child died of trauma. As a result, he does not believe that Mariah died of abuse. Dr. Davis was the attending physician in the Valley Baptist Emergency Room on February 17, 2007, and he was the primary physician responsible for Mariah’s care. Despite treating Mariah and declaring her time of death, no one interviewed him about his observations of Mariah’s condition. (App. at 21.)(Exhibit 8 at p. 2.)

Five jurors who served on the jury that sentenced Melissa to die and one alternate juror have expressed grave concerns about the evidence that they were not allowed to hear. Juror Johnny Galvan stated that “[t]he fact that you can’t pinpoint what caused Mariah’s death means that [Melissa] shouldn’t be executed.” Juror Alejandro Saldivar stated, “I think if I heard this evidence I may have decided differently.” (App. at p. 3.) Melissa Quintanilla, who was the foreperson of the jury, stated: “I was disheartened to learn that there was additional evidence that was not presented at trial. I believe that Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and for a new jury to hear this evidence. Knowing what I know now, I don’t think she should be executed.” (Supp. App. at p. 11. Supp. Exhibit 13 at pp. 2-3.)

Melissa’s Lifetime of Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence Made Her Especially Vulnerable to Coercive Interrogation Tactics Melissa’s uncle and stepfather sexually abused her over a period of years, starting when she was six years old. She told her mother, but nothing was done. As a young teenager, she was raped again by an adult man. (App. at p. 44.)

At age 16, Melissa got married, becoming a child bride, to escape the abuse she suffered and witnessed in her childhood home. (App. at p. 45.) Melissa’s first husband was a violent alcoholic, according to testimony at trial (App. at p. 45.) He abandoned Melissa after she gave birth to five children. Melissa’s next partner continued the cycle of violence and abuse. She had seven children by her second husband. He beat Melissa, choked her, threatened to kill her, and repeatedly raped her. Some of Melissa’s children also reported that he struck them. (App. at pp. 45-47.)

The family sunk deeper into poverty and was intermittently homeless. Melissa worked cleaning houses and sought other jobs when she could. Her partner Robert was jailed for months at a time. By the time Melissa was 35, she was struggling with abuse, cognitive and psychological impairments, addiction, and poverty. She had given birth to 12 children and suffered multiple miscarriages. (App. at p. 9.) Melissa’s supplemental application for clemency includes the reports of two experts in clinical psychology, Dr. Bethany Brand and Dr. Lucy Guarnera, who, respectively, explain how Melissa’s history of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence made her uniquely vulnerable to the pressure tactics used in the police interrogation and explain the recent evolution of scientific research linking trauma, like Melissa endured, to false confession risk. Dr. Brand notes that Melissa “endured a truly horrendous level of extreme and frequent childhood sexual abuse.” Dr. Brand concludes, “[t]he paramedics and detectives who opined that Melissa did not show as much emotion as they thought a mother should show had no awareness of her complex history of trauma, her severe mental illnesses, nor that Melissa had survived daily abuse and degradation by dissociating and suppressing strong emotion.”  (Supp. App. at p. 5. Supp. Exhibit 2 at 16.)  Dr. Guarnera, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, explains new scientific research, not available at the time of Melissa’s trial, on the link between trauma and false confessions. Dr. Guarnera notes that “the dynamics of the Reid techniques of police interrogation [which were used during Melissa’s interrogation]—particularly when the interrogation is carried out by male police officers—mirror precisely the dynamics of intimate partner violence.” (Supp. App. at p. 5. Supp. Exhibit 6 at 4.)  In addition, Dr. Guarnera provides critical information about how the factors leading to Melissa’s wrongful conviction are reflected in the national data on wrongful convictions of women accused of killing children. Dr. Guarnera cites a 2014 analysis of the National Registry of Exonerations that indicates “women are nearly twice as likely as men to be wrongfully convicted of child homicide (30% vs. 16%), and three times as likely as men to be wrongfully convicted of crimes that never occurred (63% vs. 21%). In over half (56%) of these no-crime exonerations of women, the supposed victims were children. Further, in one out of seven formal exonerations of women, the woman was accused of murdering a child who in reality died of an unrelated accident or undiagnosed pathology.” (Supp. App. at p. 6. Supp. Exhibit 6 at 5.)

Melissa’s Statements Have the Hallmarks of a False ConfessionOver five hours, Melissa asserted her innocence 86 times verbally and 35 times non-verbally (shaking her head), but police refused to accept any response that was not an admission of guilt—suggesting to Melissa that the interrogation would not stop unless she told them what they wanted to hear. (App. at p. 15.) While the vast majority of interrogations last 30 minutes to up to two hours, interrogations that elicit confessions later proven false last much longer. “[T]he length of Melissa’s nighttime interrogation further increased the risk that she would falsely incriminate herself.” (App at pp. 16, 36-37.)

The interrogating officers used manipulative, psychological techniques known to cause false confessions and disregarded Melissa’s multiple vulnerabilities, including her shock and grief over her daughter’s death hours earlier, physical and emotional exhaustion, sleep deprivation, her high levels of suggestibility and compliance, and low IQ. (App. at pp. 37-39.) According to experts, Melissa’s lifetime of sexual abuse, starting at six years old, and domestic violence at the hands of two partners, made her extremely vulnerable and susceptible to falsely confessing during an interrogation by male police officers, some armed. One detective yelled at her: “[i]f I beat you half to death like that little child was beat, I bet you you’d die too.” (App. at pp. 35, 42-47.)  Doctor Gisli Gudjonsson, one of the world’s leading experts in false confessions, and David Thompson, an expert from one of the nation’s top interrogation training schools, have reviewed the record of Melissa’s case and determined that Melissa “was relentlessly pressured and extensively manipulated” throughout the many hours of interrogation and her statements bear the hallmarks of a coerced-compliant false confession. (App. at pp. 15-16.) Dr. Gudjonsson concluded that Melissa’s case presents a “very high” risk of false confession and in his “extensive forensic evaluation of cases of disputed confessions internationally, the number, severity, and combination of the risk factors involved during the lengthy interrogation are exceptional.” (App. at 16.) He further explained Melissa’s “history of negative/traumatic life events is associated with increased level of suggestibility, compliance, and false confession . . . because trauma significantly reduces the resilience of the trauma victims to cope with interrogative pressure.” (App. at p. 37.)

Mr. Thompson noted, “[r]epetitive threats combined with promises or suggestions of leniency are known to incentivize innocent subjects to confess. These tactics, alongside Ms. Lucio’s susceptibility and her state of mind in a lengthy interrogation shortly after her daughter’s death, are known to have a substantial psychological impact on a subject’s decision-making” and found her statements are a result of fact-feeding or other tactics used by investigators. (Exhibit 11 at pp. 5-6.)   False confessions elicited by guilt-presumptive police interrogations—like the interrogation at issue here—are a primary cause of wrongful conviction in the United States. Of the 67 women listed on the National Registry of Exonerations who were exonerated after a murder conviction, over one quarter (17/67) involved false confessions and nearly one third (20/67) involved child victims.

What the Jury Never HeardMelissa’s supplemental application for clemency includes a declaration from David Faigman, Chancellor and Dean of the University of California Hastings College of Law, who served as a Senior Advisor to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s Report, “Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods,” who concludes that “it was an abuse of the trial court’s discretion to permit Ranger Escalon to testify regarding his ability to determine Ms. Lucio’s guilt or innocence by interpreting her facial expressions and demeanor.” (Supp. App. at pp. 6-7. Supp. Exhibit 3 at 2.) Professor Faigman further concludes, “[t]he prejudicial nature of this error was compounded by the fact that the substance of the scientific testimony in question was false as a matter of neuroscientific consensus.” (Supp. App. at p. 7. Supp. Exhibit 3 at p. 2) (emphasis added).

The jury never heard how Melissa’s history of trauma and abuse shaped her reactions immediately following her daughter’s death. Without that context, the jury convicted Melissa of capital murder. (App. at p. 13.)

Melissa’s trial attorneys were not prepared for the penalty phase of the trial. Lead counsel hamstrung his mitigation specialist and expert until weeks before the trial began. As a result, Melissa’s mitigation specialist never completed her investigation and the jury never learned about the extent of Melissa’s history of child sexual abuse and domestic violence.The omission of this mitigating evidence was particularly damaging because the prosecution had a weak case for death. Melissa had no prior record of violence and the State’s sole evidence of future dangerousness was the death of Mariah and a prior conviction for driving under the influence. (App. at p. 62.)

So Far, the Courts’ Hands Have Been TiedA majority of judges have agreed that the trial court was wrong to exclude the psychologist’s expert testimony, which would have provided an explanation for Melissa’s acquiescence during the coercive interrogation. “The State presented no physical evidence or witness testimony establishing that [Melissa] abused Mariah or any of her children, let alone killed Mariah,” seven Fifth Circuit judges wrote. By excluding expert explanations for Melissa’s remarks during her interrogation, the trial court wrongfully barred Melissa’s right to present her defense. (App. at p. 13.) But a divided Fifth Circuit believed that current federal law cuts off the courts’ ability to correct this injustice.On February 18, 2022, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a resolution calling on officials not to execute Melissa before the Commission has had an opportunity to reach a final decision in her case. The Commission considered the evidence that Melissa’s “life was shaped by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse,” and that the same experiences shaped her response to a coercive interrogation.

Gender Bias Affected Melissa’s Investigation and ProsecutionMelissa regrets not getting medical care for Mariah earlier, but she is not guilty of murder. Her husband, Mariah’s father, was found guilty of child endangerment and sentenced to four years, even though he had a history of assaultive behavior. At most, a charge of neglect was more appropriate for Melissa than murder. (App. at p. 3.)

Corrupt Cameron County DA Villalobos personally led Melissa’s prosecution. In 2007, in exchange for a bribe, he enabled the release and flight from justice of Amit Livingston, a man who had killed his estranged girlfriend. As DA Villalobos was scheming to facilitate the release of this male batterer, he was pursuing the death penalty against a woman who was a lifelong victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Former DA Villalobos is now serving a 13-year federal sentence for bribery and extortion. (App. at p. 19.)

Melissa’s supplemental application for clemency states, “[f]rom the moment they arrived at the scene of Mariah’s death, police and first responders formed judgments about [Melissa] that were rooted in their perceptions of how a grieving mother should behave. These visceral impressions led them to target her as a suspect even before they had gathered any evidence in the case.” (Supp. App. at p. 7.) In contrast, they treated Robert Alvarez, Melissa’s partner and Mariah’s father, as a victim and expressed empathy for his loss, even though he had a history of familial violence. (Supp. App. at pp. 7-8.)

Melissa is a Person of Deep Catholic Faith Who Walks with GodMelissa grew up without much religious instruction, but began her walk with God on September 26, 2014. She is a person of deep Catholic faith who attends Catholic mass services every Monday and meets individually with a pastor, Deacon Ronnie, on Thursdays and Sundays. In 2015, Melissa and other women on death row formed a Bible study group where, she says, “we all help each other.” Her main concern now is for her family, especially having her children support each other. Because of Melissa, her son John has also devoted himself to God, and she reads a Bible verse to him at the beginning of each of their visits. (App. at pp. 54-61.)

Widespread Support Across Texas for ClemencyAlarmed by the prospect of executing an innocent woman, who is a lifelong survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence, a wide and diverse array of Texans are urging the Governor and the Board to grant Melissa clemency, including:

  • A bipartisan group of more than 80 members of the Texas House of Representatives and 20 State Senators;
  • 225 anti-domestic violence/sexual assault organizations from Texas and across the country, including the Texas Council on Family Violence, the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, and the Lone Star Justice Alliance.
  • Over 130 Baptist, Evangelical and Catholic faith leaders in Texas, including more than 50 Baptist leaders, the Executive Director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas, and the Director of the Rio Grande Valley Baptist Association;
  • More than 30 groups that work on behalf of Latinos in Texas and across the U.S., including the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL);
  • Eighteen people wrongfully convicted of a crime in a Texas state court, including Hannah Overton and Michael Morton; and
  • Twenty-six death row exonerees, including two from Texas.

Melissa’s children are also urging the Governor and the Board not to execute their mother. They are Mariah’s brothers and sisters and Texas law requires that their wishes be taken into account. (App. at pp. 1-2, 49-51.)

More than 250,000 people, including more than 44,000 Texans, have signed an Innocence Project petition urging clemency for Melissa.

Abused Latinas and Wrongful ConvictionsOf the 67 women listed on the National Registry of Exonerations who were exonerated after a murder conviction, over one quarter (17/67) involved false confessions and nearly one third (20/67) involved child victims.

Roughly one in three Latinas will suffer intimate partner violence in her lifetime, but the rates are higher for Latinas like Melissa who struggle with poverty and who were sexually abused as children. Also, research indicates that police tend to disbelieve women of color when they report domestic violence. At Melissa’s death penalty trial, the prosecution belittled the evidence of Melissa’s history of sexual abuse and domestic violence. (See trial transcript vol. 39 pp. 161-62.)According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, 187 people have been exonerated from death row, including 16 in Texas, and the number of people whose lives were taken before they were able to prove their innocence is unknown.

For  more information on Melissa Lucio’s innocence case, please visit https://innocenceproject.org/who-is-melissa-lucio-death-penalty-texas-execution-innocent/ and The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide at https://deathpenaltyworldwide.org/advocacy/melissa-lucio/

Case Documents

Dr. Robert Leonard’s linguistic analysis of the transcripts of police questioning of both Melissa Lucio and Robert Alvarez can be found here :Analysis of Police Transcipts

Melissa Lucio’s First Subsequent Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/2paxuabx 

Melissa Lucio’s Application for the Commutation of Death Sentence to a Lesser Penalty or, in the Alternative, a 120-Reprieve from Execution can be viewed here:

Melissa Lucio’s Motion to Reconsider State’s Motion to Set Execution Date and to Withdraw or Modify the Execution Date can be viewed here and Exhibits can be viewed here

Read the amicus curiae brief filed by former prosecutors, anti-violence organizations & gender based violence experts here: Coalition brief

Read the Innocence Project’s amicus curiae brief here: Innocence Project brief

Read the petition filed by Sandra Babcock to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for violation of Melissa Lucio’s human rights here: IACHR Petition – Melissa Lucio, 2021, IACHR Exhibit Appendix 1 of 2 and IACHR Exhibit Appendix 2 of 2.

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 For  more information on Melissa Lucio’s innocence case, please visit https://innocenceproject.org/who-is-melissa-lucio-death-penalty-texas-execution-innocent/ and The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide at https://deathpenaltyworldwide.org/advocacy/melissa-lucio/

 

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