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The Texas lawmakers who stopped Melissa Lucio’s execution were the right thing to do

Imagine being on death row for sixteen years for a crime that the judge now says you may not have committed. But just two days before your execution date, you are told that you will not be subject to the death penalty in Texas.

At least not yet.

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

Her story has everything to do with a terrifying television crime drama, except it’s real and not over yet.

There is a forced confession, flawed forensic investigation, withheld evidence and a murder conviction, followed by a fixed execution date. As time ran out, friends, family and eventually lawmakers intervened and appealed 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 is awaiting a final ruling from the only panel that can overturn a criminal conviction in Texas.

Incredibly, Lucio’s execution was postponed in part thanks to the lobbying efforts of Texas Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican who favors the death penalty. He joined bipartisan state lawmakers to save Lucio just before she was to be put to death. Her ordeal exposes flaws and biases in the criminal justice system and reignites the debate over the death penalty in Texas.

I tend to be in favor of the death penalty as a powerful deterrent to violent crime, but this is exactly the kind of case that anti-death penalty people use to argue that it may be flawed.

“I think I did it.” A confession that shouldn’t 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 February 15, Lucio’s youngest child, 2-year-old Mariah, fell down a steep staircase outside their apartment in Harlingen, South Texas. Although Mariah got into quite a bit of trouble, Lucio did not immediately seek medical attention, a decision that would later prove to haunt the 16-year ordeal.

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Two days later, Mariah didn’t wake up from a nap. She was rushed to hospital, but could not be resuscitated.

The prosecutor would later describe in a detailed statement that Mariah’s body showed several signs of being “severely beaten,” such as bruises, bite marks, a broken arm, a bruised spinal cord and parts of her scalp missing hair.

Police investigators began to suspect that Mariah died from child abuse, and Lucio was taken in for questioning just two hours after Mariah’s death.

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

Although she denied more than a hundred times and beat her daughter to death, Lucio – pregnant with twins, tired and grieving – finally confessed after five hours: “I think I did it.”

Rather than interpreting Lucio’s statement as an annoyed admission of guilt that her failure to seek medical attention after Mariah’s fall led to her death, prosecutors characterized her words as an admission of murder.

The fact that Lucio had a history of drug abuse and investigations by child welfare agencies only worsened her plight and the way investigators viewed the overwhelmed, tired mother.

The process of excluding evidence

Relatives of Melissa Lucio gather in Houston in 2022 to ask Texas Governor Greg Abbott to halt her execution.Relatives of Melissa Lucio gather in Houston in 2022 to ask Texas Governor Greg Abbott to halt her execution.

Relatives of Melissa Lucio gather in Houston in 2022 to ask Texas Governor Greg Abbott to halt her execution.

During the trial, prosecutors focused on Lucio’s confession and Mariah’s bruised body. Although several of Lucio’s children interviewed said their mother was not abusive and that at least one child had seen Mariah fall 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 a fall down the stairs and that her injuries were consistent with death from blunt force trauma.

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

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A documentary about Lucio’s case reports that Mariah’s autopsy showed signs of disseminated intravascular coagulation, a blood disease that can cause extreme bruising.

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In 2008, Lucio was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 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 survivor of sexual abuse, lived in poverty with her children for years, occasionally homeless and addicted to drugs. Child Protective Services was in and out of Lucio’s life and had removed the children at least once for neglect.

‘Are you serious?’ News full of hope changes Lucio’s case.

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

This decision was short-lived. In 2021, the same court, now a larger panel of judges, overturned that decision and reinstated her conviction. The Supreme Court rejected her request for review.

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

On March 22, her lawyers filed her petition for clemency, which included a slew of expert reports refuting the prosecutor’s case. Four jurors and Lucio’s children asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles for leniency.

With the clock ticking, Lucio’s case caught the attention of lawmakers and even celebrities. In a letter dated March 25, 2022, Leach, Republican and other Republican and Democratic lawmakers appealed, asking for a postponement of Lucio’s execution date due to overwhelming evidence of her innocence.

During a hearing in the Texas House in April 2022, Texas questions Rep.  Cameron County District Attorney Jeff Leach, R-Plano, asks for leniency in the death penalty against Melissa Lucio.During a hearing in the Texas House in April 2022, Texas questions Rep.  Cameron County District Attorney Jeff Leach, R-Plano, asks for leniency in the death penalty against Melissa Lucio.

During a hearing in the Texas House in April 2022, Texas questions Rep. Cameron County District Attorney Jeff Leach, R-Plano, asks for leniency in the death penalty against Melissa Lucio.

Bipartisan lawmakers also urged 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, Lucio was assessed four issues: whether the state used false evidence to convict Lucio, whether the state withheld evidence favorable to Lucio’s defense, or whether new scientific evidence that the jury had not heard could have result in her acquittal and therefore whether Lucio is actually innocent.

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Representative Leach called Lucio, who was still behind bars, to break the news that her execution had been postponed. “Are you serious?” she said. “That’s wonderful. … Oh, thank you, God.”

So partisan legislators can work together. Even in Texel.

Republicans in Texas are known for their strong center-right beliefs. Party politics are as common – and stifling – as the July heat. Leach and other lawmakers deserve recognition for their hard work in bringing Lucio’s case to light. This outcome is an example of how continued pressure from lawmakers on a specific issue can actually bring about change.

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

Lucio’s attorneys and District Attorney Saenz released a rare joint statement saying the parties filed a joint filing in 2023 that “acknowledges that Melissa’s legal team did not have access to information favorable to her defense at the time of trial.” “

It is not often that both parties in a criminal case agree on injustice.

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

Lucio is not free yet. She is being held in a jail in Gatesville, but this is a step in the right direction.

For certain crimes, the death penalty seems appropriate. In cases where there is doubt of evidence, this is not the case.

Lucio’s story remains a tragic demonstration of how careful lawmakers and the criminal justice system must be with sentencing, not to mention the death penalty.

Without organizations like the Innocence Project and the persistent 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 a prison sentence for a crime you didn’t commit, but being executed on top of that seems unbearable to even consider.

This is also a cautionary tale about a whirlwind of factors that created a perfect storm of events leading to a near execution: racism, homelessness, abuse, poverty, police bias, and more. It seems that Lucio has been abandoned by so many people, in so many places.

For many, the mere chance to execute one innocent person may be enough to call for an end to the death penalty. While I believe that Texas should still retain the death penalty, it should be used with extreme caution. This case is exactly why.

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

You can read a variety of opinions from our board of contributors and other writers on the Opinions front page on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily opinion newsletter.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Melissa Lucio’s execution in Texas was halted. Her case is terrifying.

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