87th LegislatureCriminal JusticeState Lawmakers Confront District Attorney as Melissa Lucio’s Controversial Execution Approaches

A Cameron County jury convicted Melissa Lucio in 2008 on a charge of capital murder in the death of her two-year-old daughter.
April 13, 2022
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Lawmakers sparred with Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday as a bipartisan group of politicians have called on the state Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott to spare Melissa Lucio from the death chamber.

A jury in Cameron County found Lucio guilty of capital murder in 2008 after the death of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah. According to court documents, the forensic pathologist who performed the girl’s autopsy testified that she had been beaten to death.

In addition, the emergency room doctor who tried to save Mariah’s life told the jury that he had never seen a more egregious occurrence of child abuse in his decades as a physician.

After the case worked its way through the criminal justice system for over 13 years, a Democratic state district judge, Gabriela Garcia, set the execution date for April 27, which is during National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

In a press conference last month, a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) cast doubt on Lucio’s conviction, drawing attention to the Texas Rangers’ controversial interrogation of her prior to her apparent confession. They called on the board and Abbott to commute her sentence or at least grant a reprieve.

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At Tuesday’s hearing, Leach and his colleagues on the Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform implored Saenz, who testified by videoconference, to ask the trial court to withdraw the death warrant for Lucio.

Most of the hearing consisted of committee members haggling with Saenz over the technicalities of his ability to cancel the execution date, which was set at his request. The district attorney contended that he has no legal reason to request that the death warrant be withdrawn and that several motions are pending in the courts that must be resolved before Lucio is taken to the lethal injection chamber.

“I believe that in the next days or whatever before, I do not believe that this execution is going to go through on April 27,” Saenz said, testifying that he believes the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is going to issue a stay of execution.

One committee member, Rep. Angie Chen Button (R-Richardson), suggested that Saenz’s answers lacked “common sense.” Later in the hearing, she commented that she was taken aback by the district attorney’s stance that “it’s going to work out” so soon before an execution.

“I am a little bit worried about that. Time is running out. Could you help me out? He says, ‘Oh, don’t worry, Representative Button, you’re just a worry bird,’” Button quipped, recalling her exchange with Saenz during his testimony.

Saenz was not the district attorney when Lucio was convicted. The district attorney at the time, Armando Villalobos, would later be sentenced to 13 years in prison for corrupt dealings during his time in office.

Demetrius Minor, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, commented on the Lucio case as a reflection of the nature of capital punishment.

“The death penalty is the only punishment that is irreversible. If we get it wrong, there’s no going back,” Minor wrote in a statement to The Texan on Tuesday.

“There [have] been many times where innocent people have been put to death, and that should give us all concern and doubt about this current system. The case of Melissa Lucio is rightfully bringing awareness to a justice system that needs to be transformed. We are hopeful that the right decision will be made concerning this matter.”

Leach and other lawmakers, including Reps. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), Lacey Hull (R-Houston), Toni Rose (D-Dallas), Victoria Neave Criado (D-Dallas), and James White (R-Hillister), visited Lucio last week at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, where female death row prisoners are held.

The Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform is chaired by Leach and vice-chaired by Moody. Other members include Reps. Rhetta Bowers (D-Garland), Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), Angie Chen Button (R-Richardson), David Cook (R-Mansfield), Cole Hefner (R-Mt. Pleasant), Eddie Morales Jr. (D-Eagle Pass), Reggie Smith (R-Sherman), and Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston).

Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) also appointed Brett Tolman, the executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime campaign, to serve on the committee as a member of the public.

Leach indicated at the hearing that the board has until 48 hours prior to the execution to recommend clemency. Abbott could then either accept or reject it. Without a clemency recommendation, the governor can only grant a 30-day reprieve.

Rachel Alderete, the director of support operations for the Board of Pardons and Paroles, stated in response to questions from The Texan that the body’s proceedings are not public.

“Any information that the Board of Pardons and Paroles would have is confidential and privileged pursuant to Texas Govt. Code 508.313. The Board votes independently two days prior to the scheduled execution,” Alderete wrote.

A copy of Speaker Phelan’s proclamation creating the Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform can be found below.

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Hayden Sparks

Hayden Sparks is a senior reporter for The Texan and a lifelong resident of the Lone Star State. He has coached competitive speech and debate and has been involved in politics since a young age. One of Hayden's favorite quotes is by Sam Houston: "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may."