'Oh thank you, God': Texas lawmakers halting Melissa Lucio's execution was the right call

Imagine spending 16 years on death row for a crime a judge now says you may not have committed. But, just two days before your execution date, you are told you're not going to be subject to the Texas death penalty.

At least not yet.

This happened to Melissa Lucio, mother of 14. If her capital punishment is carried out, Lucio will be the first Latina executed in Texas in the modern era of the death penalty.

Her story has all the makings of a terrifying television crime drama except that it's real, and it's not over yet.

There's a coerced confession, faulty forensics, suppressed evidence and a capital murder conviction followed by a set execution date. As time started to run out, friends, family and eventually lawmakers intervened, appealing to the state to grant Lucio clemency.

Last month, two years after her execution was stayed, Judge Arturo Nelson, who presided over Lucio’s original trial, recommended that the Court of Criminal Appeals overturn Lucio’s conviction and death sentence. She awaits a final ruling from the only panel that can overturn a criminal conviction in Texas.

Incredibly, Lucio's execution was stayed due in part to the lobbying efforts of Texas Rep. Jeff Leach, a pro-death penalty Republican. He joined bipartisan state lawmakers to save Lucio just before she was scheduled to be put to death. Her ordeal reveals flaws and prejudice in the criminal justice system and reignites debate over the death penalty in Texas.

I tend to be pro-death penalty as a strong deterrent for violent crime, but this is exactly the kind of case that people who are against the death penalty use to argue it can be flawed.

'I guess I did it.' A confession that should not have been.

Melissa Lucio spends time with her daughters Mariah and Adriana in this undated family photo.
Melissa Lucio spends time with her daughters Mariah and Adriana in this undated family photo.

Lucio's nightmare began just after Valentine's Day in 2007. On Feb. 15, Lucio's youngest child, 2-year-old Mariah, fell down a steep set of stairs outside their apartment in Harlingen, South Texas. Though Mariah had quite a tumble, Lucio did not seek medical help right away, a decision that would later prove to haunt the 16-year ordeal.

Two days later, Mariah did not wake up from a nap. She was rushed to the hospital but could not be revived.

The district attorney would later describe in a detailed statement that Mariah's body showed several signs of being "severely beaten," such as bruising, bite marks, a broken arm, a bruised spinal cord, and portions of her scalp missing hair.

Police investigators began to suspect Mariah died of child abuse, and Lucio was taken in for questioning just two hours after Mariah died.

I represent women wrongfully convicted: The Texas courts have spared Melissa Lucio’s life. Now she can prove her innocence.

Though she denied, more than 100 times, beating her daughter to death, after five hours, Lucio − pregnant with twins, tired and grieving − finally confessed: "I guess I did it."

Rather than interpret Lucio's statement as an exasperated admission of guilt that her failure to seek medical attention after Mariah's fall led to her death, prosecutors characterized her words as a murder confession.

The fact that Lucio had a history of drug abuse and investigations by child welfare agencies only exacerbated her fate and how investigators saw the overwhelmed, tired mom.

The trial where evidence was excluded

Relatives of Melissa Lucio rally in 2022 in Houston, asking Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to stop her execution.
Relatives of Melissa Lucio rally in 2022 in Houston, asking Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to stop her execution.

During the trial, prosecutors focused on Lucio's confession and Mariah's bruised body. Though several of Lucio's children who were interviewed said their mother wasn't abusive and at least one child had witnessed Mariah falling down the stairs, corroborating Lucio's claim, prosecutors withheld this from the defense at the time.

A pathologist, Dr. Norma Jean Farley, testified that the child’s autopsy indicated that she did not die from falling down stairs and that her injuries were consistent with a death from blunt force trauma.

At trial, the defense tried to present testimony of an expert psychologist about how conditions of the interrogation could lead to a false confession, but the court excluded that testimony.

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A documentary of Lucio's case relays that Mariah's autopsy showed signs of disseminated intravascular coagulation, a blood disorder that can cause extreme bruising.

In 2008, Lucio was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by the Cameron County court.

The circumstances surrounding Mariah's death, including Lucio's history and choice, made this mother all the more susceptible to scrutiny and assumptions of abuse. Lucio, a sexual abuse survivor, spent years living with her children in poverty, occasionally homeless and abusing drugs. Child Protective Services were in and out of Lucio's life and had removed the children at least once for neglect.

'Are you serious?' News of hope turns Lucio's case around.

Lucio's attorneys from the Innocence Project appealed her conviction multiple times to no avail. After the Texas Court of Appeals rejected Lucio's initial appeal, she appealed to a higher court. In 2019, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit agreed that Lucio had been deprived of her constitutional right to defend herself adequately.

This decision was short-lived. In 2021, the same court, now a larger panel of judges, tossed that decision out, reinstating her conviction. The Supreme Court denied her petition for review.

Lucio's execution date was set for April 27, 2022.

That March 22, her attorneys filed her clemency application, which included a bevy of reports from experts disproving the prosecution's case. Four jurors and Lucio's children asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency.

As the clock ticked, Lucio's case caught the attention of legislators and even celebrities. In a letter dated March 25, 2022, Leach, the Texas Republican, and other Republican and Democratic lawmakers appealed, requesting Lucio's execution date be stayed due to overwhelming evidence of her innocence.

At a Texas House hearing in April 2022, Texas Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, questions Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz for clemency in the death penalty against Melissa Lucio.
At a Texas House hearing in April 2022, Texas Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, questions Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz for clemency in the death penalty against Melissa Lucio.

Bipartisan lawmakers also pressed Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz during a legislative hearing to intervene on Lucio’s behalf.

Two days before she was to be executed, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Lucio's execution. In a three-page order, it granted Lucio a review of four issues: whether the state used false evidence to convict Lucio, whether the state withheld favorable evidence to Lucio's defense, whether new scientific evidence the jury didn't hear could have resulted in her acquittal and thus whether Lucio is actually innocent.

Rep. Leach called Lucio, still behind bars, to break the news that her execution had been stayed. “Are you serious?” she said. “That is wonderful. … Oh thank you, God.”

So partisan lawmakers can work together. Even in Texas.

Republicans in Texas are known for their strong center-right beliefs. Partisan politics is as common − and stifling − as the July heat. Leach and other lawmakers should be acknowledged for working hard to bring Lucio's case to light. This outcome is an example of just how lawmakers' continued pressure on a specific cause can truly make change.

“I have long maintained that the system failed Melissa Lucio – and her daughter, Mariah – at every turn and that she should be given a new chance for justice … and a new chance for life,” Leach said in a post on X last month.

Lucio's attorneys and DA Saenz released a rare joint statement saying that in 2023, the parties submitted a joint filing acknowledging that "Melissa's legal team did not have access to information favorable to her defense at the time of trial."

It's uncommon for both sides of a criminal case to agree about injustice.

Hate Texas? Get over it. Why so many people are moving to the Lone Star State.

Lucio is not free yet. She’s being held at a prison in Gatesville, but this is a step in the right direction.

For certain crimes, the death penalty seems fitting. In cases where there is any evidentiary doubt, it is not.

Lucio's story remains a tragic demonstration of just how careful lawmakers and the criminal justice system must be about convictions, to say nothing about the death penalty.

Without organizations like the Innocence Project and the dogged lobbying of Leach and other lawmakers, Lucio's story could have been even more tragic. It's hard to think of a more unjust scenario than serving time for a crime you didn't do, but to be executed for it on top of that seems unbearable to even consider.

This is also a cautionary tale of a whirlwind of factors that created a perfect storm of events that led to a near execution: racism, homelessness, abuse, poverty, police bias and more. Lucio appears to have been failed by so many people, in so many places.

For many, just the chance of executing one innocent person may be enough to advocate for ending the death penalty. While I believe Texas should still keep the death penalty in place, it should be exercised with extreme caution. This case is precisely why.

Nicole Russell is an opinion columnist with USA TODAY. She lives in Texas with her four kids.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas execution of Melissa Lucio was halted. Her case is haunting.