A jury in Cameron County convicted Melissa Lucio in 2008 on a charge of capital murder in the death of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah, who was found dead on February 17, 2007.
In February 2021, the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to grant Lucio a new trial. The 10 to 7 opinion reversed an earlier decision by a smaller panel of federal judges that had ordered a new trial for Lucio.
Judge Gabriela Garcia, a Democrat on Cameron County’s 138th District Court, set the execution date for April 27 of this year at the request of Democrat Luis Saenz, the Cameron County district attorney.
Reps. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), Joe Moody (D-El Paso), Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), James White (R-Hillister), and Lacey Hull (R-Houston) spoke in support of clemency for Lucio.
While Leach described himself as a “supporter of the death penalty in the most heinous cases,” he asserted that Lucio should not be put to death in light of the doubts overshadowing her trial and conviction.
Leach indicated that more than 80 members of the Texas House have signed a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking it to grant clemency to Lucio.
Moody stated that Lucio became a Christian after her conviction and expressed his own belief that her faith should be considered.
“As a practicing Catholic, I know how powerful a turn to faith can be, and whoever Melissa was when she entered our system, her devotion and ministry make it clear that she’s now a different person who has earned a measure of grace,” Moody said.
The Democrat said that “this case shows that the death penalty process in Texas cannot be trusted to provide justice to all of us.”
For her part, Thompson stated that Lucio is a survivor of domestic violence, suffers from PTSD and other mental health issues, and that her confession was elicited improperly.
“The techniques used to secure her statement known as the read technique of maximization and minimization have been shown to wear down subjects into false confessions,” Thompson said.
“In this case, Melissa denied having done this 80 times over the course of interrogation before finally simply agreeing with the interrogators who were saying instead of supplying her own account of what happened.”
When asked by The Texan what the Lucio case says about the state’s criminal justice system and what policies they hoped to enact in response, Leach and White discussed their views on the capital punishment process.
“We’ve talked a lot in this building about protecting innocent life, and I believe that’s from the womb to the tomb, and so my message to my fellow Republican colleagues specifically is to not bury your head in the sand on these issues,” Leach said.
“Typically Republicans have been reticent or reluctant to talk about the death penalty, to question the integrity of the death penalty, and I think that’s the wrong approach. I know it’s the wrong approach.”
Leach added, “This caucus is open to any and all reforms which ensure the integrity and the strength of our criminal justice system, that will ensure beyond a shadow of a doubt that no innocent Texan is ever put to death by the state.”
White suggested Lucio’s lawyers may not have been qualified to represent her and legislators should examine whether capital defendants are receiving competent representation.
“It would be good for us to have an institution or a process where we nurture a core of attorneys that we know have the requisite skill set and experience in dealing with these cases,” White said.
The Republican had earlier commented that he is hopeful the state can avoid similar “episodic inflection points” in the future.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles has the ability to recommend that Lucio’s sentence be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Abbott could then grant or deny clemency in response to the board’s recommendation. Otherwise, the governor can only delay Lucio’s execution by 30 days, per the board’s website.
Texas has executed 573 prisoners since the legislature reinstated capital punishment in 1976. One other execution is currently scheduled in April, while two more are set for this summer.
A copy of the 5th Circuit’s decision last year denying Lucio a new trial can be found below.
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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."