One of the few women on death row in Texas just caught an almost unheard of break in her case: The district attorney who requested her execution in the first place says that if the courts don’t stop her death, he will.
Melissa Lucio is set to die on April 27 for the murder of her 2-year-old son in 2008. Since originally confessing to the crime after hours of questioning, the 53-year-old has maintained her innocence. Evaluations show she suffers from PTSD after years of domestic abuse, and five of the 12 jurors who sentenced her to death have since come forward to express their doubts about her guilt. Kim Kardashian has also used her newfound sway in the criminal justice world to speak out about Lucio’s sentence.
Now, even Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, who set her execution date and has the power to withdraw the request, has his doubts. At a hearing Tuesday—led by a bipartisan group of more than 80 Texas House members concerned that new evidence proves Lucio’s innocence, Saenz said he was sure the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would stay the execution.
“If defendant Lucio does not get a stay by a certain day, then I will do what I have to do and stop it,” he said at the hearing. Lucio, however, would still be on death row; she’d need a full pardon or her conviction reversed to leave.
State Rep. Jeff Leach said after the hearing: “That was unequivocal to the committee, and we got it on tape.”
Last month, the same group that held the hearing sent a letter to the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asking them to grant clemency or to commute her sentence.
Lucio was convicted of beating her daughter Mariah to death and became one of six women on Texas’ death row shortly after. During her trial, the prosecution claimed that the deceased toddler had bruises, bite marks, and other injuries on her body, and a medical examiner testified that she died from a blow to head. Prosecutors also said Lucio had a history of drug abuse and had lost custody of some of her 14 children.
Thousands of pages of Child Protective Services records, however, show that none of Lucio’s children ever said she was violent with them, and the prosecution presented no physical evidence showing that Lucio ever abused Mariah or any of her children. Lucio’s defense also argued that the 2-year-old’s death was likely caused by a fall down the stairs.
One of the detectives on the case named Victor Escalon Jr., used Lucio’s slumped posture and lack of eye contact during questioning and testified that, “Right there and then, I knew she did something.” Then came hours of aggressive interrogation which finally ended at 3 a.m. in a confession: “I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m responsible for it.”
Lucio’s legal team now argues that she was coerced into making a false confession, especially as a survivor of lifelong abuse. She wouldn’t be alone, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Nearly one in three 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.
Supporters of Lucio, including the Innocence Project, point to the fact that coerced false confessions are a leading cause of wrongful conviction and even more prevalent among women wrongly convicted of killing a child.
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