by Sophie Trist
On April 27, the state of Texas plans to execute Melissa Elizabeth Lucio, a Mexican-American mother of twelve, for a crime she did not commit. In 2008, Melissa’s two-year-old daughter Mariah fell down a steep set of stairs and tragically died. Two days later, after five hours of coercive interrogation by several armed police detectives, Melissa said, “I guess I did it. I’m responsible.” Melissa waived her right to have a lawyer present during interrogation, and grainy video footage shows a Texas Ranger making Melissa look at photos of her daughter's battered body and asking her what goes through her head when she looks at the pictures. He can also be seen encouraging her to spank a baby doll to demonstrate how she disciplined her children and trying to get her to hit the doll harder despite her protests.
Many factors make this confession seem dubious. Firstly, Texas could not present any evidence that Melissa ever abused any of her ten children before Mariah’s death (she gave birth to her youngest twins in prison). According to thousands of pages of documents from Child Protective Services, none of her children ever said anything about her being violent toward any of them. Secondly, Melissa’s own history as a survivor of domestic and sexual violence made her especially vulnerable to police coercion. Thirdly — try to put yourself in the shoes of a mother who has just lost a baby. Melissa was bound to feel guilt, regardless of the accidental nature of the fall that killed her daughter. What happened to Melissa is not uncommon. According to the Innocence Project, 40% of exonerated women were convicted of crimes that did not happen, often involving the deaths of children or those in their care, which were later ruled accidents and suicides.
Melissa has come tantalizingly close to proving her innocence in court. In July 2019, the fifth circuit ruled that her right to a full and robust defense at trial had been violated. However, in January of 2021, an appeals court reversed this ruling by a vote of ten to seven, and the Supreme Court has declined to hear Melissa’s case. This innocent woman’s life is now in the hands of Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Board of Pardons and Paroles. If they truly want to see justice done, they must investigate this strong and compelling claim of innocence and return Melissa Lucio to her children.
Film director Sabrina Van Tassel created an award-winning documentary about the case, The State of Texas vs. Melissa, which received numerous accolades at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is one of Hulu’s most-watched documentaries. Upon learning of Melissa’s execution date, she penned a powerful open letter to French president Immanuel Macron, urging him to use his power as president of the EU to call for worldwide abolition of the death penalty. She claims that Cameron County officials want to make Melissa’s case disappear, to suppress it. This wouldn’t be the first time that government officials have tried to cover up police or prosecutorial misconduct by killing someone as quickly as possible. Too often it seems that some officials believe that a tough-on-crime reputation is more valuable than the truth — more valuable than a human life. We see this cruel pattern repeat over and over again in our brutal capital punishment system.
Sometimes cases like Melissa Lucio’s fill me with despair. It seems like no matter how many documentaries we make, no matter how many petitions we sign, no matter how many people march in protest or how blatant the injustice is, the government just doesn’t care about saving innocent people. But as exhausting as this fight can be, we can’t afford to stop speaking out against dehumanization. Please sign this petition calling on Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz to investigate Melissa Lucio's case. I encourage everyone who reads this to join the efforts of Death Penalty Action, the Innocence Project, and other organizations working to save Melissa’s life, to fight for a world where respect for truth and human life always win out.