Stop the execution of Melissa Lucio. What you need to know about his case


JTexas’ highest criminal court on Monday stayed the execution of Melissa Lucio, a mother whose murder conviction in the death of her 2-year-old daughter is coming under increasing scrutiny amid doubts about his guilt.

Lucio, 53, was sentenced to be executed by lethal injection on April 27 for the 2007 death of her daughter, Mariah. But after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted him a stay of execution, his case is now heading to a lower court for a hearing to consider new evidence.

“I thank God for my life. I have always trusted in Him. I am grateful that the Court gave me the chance to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in my heart today and always,” Lucio said in a statement provided by his attorney later Monday. If Lucio’s execution had taken place, she would be the first Latina in the United States to be killed in this manner since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

For now, Lucio and his family are eagerly awaiting a new trial. “(His family) are delighted. They are relieved. They suffered from so much fear and anxiety and they hope that we will prove Melissa’s innocence and that she will be released,” said Tivon Schardl, one of Lucio’s lawyers.

What happened in the case and immediately after?

On February 15, 2007, 2-year-old Mariah died from injuries associated with falling down a flight of stairs leading to their apartment, according to Lucio and her children. (Lucio’s attorneys say Mariah had physical disabilities that made her walk unsteady and led to falls.) Two days later, the little one didn’t wake up from a nap on her parents’ bed, reports they stated. Prosecutors argue that the girl’s body was covered in bruises and that her death was due to abuse.

The police arrested Lucio; just two hours after her daughter’s death, she had been questioned during which her lawyers said “armed male police officers stood over her, yelled at her, threatened her, berated her parenthood and repeatedly refused to accept anything other than an admission of causing her daughter’s death. As a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, they said she was particularly vulnerable to aggressive interrogation tactics by law enforcement. Lucio was found guilty of beating her daughter to death based in part on statements she gave during this interrogation.

“This is so clearly a case of coercive interrogation tactics,” says Schardl, one of Lucio’s attorneys, who argued that Lucio asserted his innocence more than 100 times during the interrogation. Schardl also points out that in Texas an individual must be declared a future danger for the death penalty to apply, but that Lucio had no history of violence.

On March 22, Lucio’s attorneys submitted a clemency petition to the governor, which included statements from experts pointing out issues with confessions and medical evidence. The confession was essentially a “regurgitation” of facts and words that officers told her during their interrogation and the evidence was consistent with the conclusion that Mariah died of medical complications from a fall, they said.

The clemency petition also included statements from five jurors who said they had serious concerns about evidence withheld from them during the trial and would support a remedy.

Who are Lucio’s supporters?

Lucio’s case has sparked widespread outrage from a bipartisan group of more than 100 Texas state lawmakers, as well as dozens of domestic, religious and Latino anti-violence groups and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and John Oliver. They argue that medical evidence showing Mariah’s death was consistent with an accident and an aggressive five-hour interrogation of a woman with a history of abuse should be reason enough to halt her execution.

Republican State Rep. Jeff Leach, who had pleaded for his clemency, was the one to break the news to Lucio in an emotional phone call, which was first reported by the Texas Tribune. “It was an overwhelming call for me. Probably a lot more overwhelming and joyful for her,” Leach told TIME.

In a recording of the call, Lucio can be heard laughing and crying as she asks, “Are you serious? Are you serious? When did it happen?”

Leach says if the death penalty in Texas is upheld, policymakers must consider reforms to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“One thing we can all agree on is that we deserve and expect and demand a government that we can trust and that’s right and in Melissa’s case I saw very clearly that the system failed him at every turn,” he says. “We cannot allow a system where a potentially innocent Texan can be killed.”

The systemic issue of false confessions

Criminal justice experts point out that the hostile interrogation tactics in Lucio’s case point to a more systemic problem. “His case represents the tip of the iceberg. For every lucky one we catch, we discover that there are an unknown number of false confessors still in jail as cases go unreviewed,” says Saul Kassin, professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Of more than 3,000 cases of exonerated individuals, about 12% involved false confessions, according to an April 2022 analysis of the National Exoneration Registry; this number jumped to 34% when the exonerated accused was under 18 at the time of the crime, and 69% if he was mentally ill or intellectually disabled. And of more than 360 wrongful convictions in the United States that have been overturned by DNA evidence, nearly 30% involved some sort of false confession, according to the Innocence Project.

Police coercive interrogation tactics are likely what led to Lucio’s confession, Kassin says. During the interrogation, she at one point said the words “I guess I did” before handing him a doll which she was instructed to hit repeatedly.

“I can cite so many false confessions that started with the words, ‘it looks like I did it. Maybe I did it. I guess I did it. That’s not the language of memory. It’s the language of inference. I guess I did it because apparently you have that evidence,” he says.

“After five hours of relentless harassment – given his state of mind – breaking down is not that surprising,” adds Kassin.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com.


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