The family and advocates of the only Hispanic woman on Texas’ death row are fighting to stop her looming execution, arguing she was wrongfully convicted of the murder of her 2-year-old daughter in 2007.
“We don’t want our mother executed,” Melissa Lucio’s oldest son, John, told CNN. “We already lost our sister. And now to lose our mother for an accident is just horrible.”
Lucio’s attorneys are seeking clemency, calling on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott either a commutation of her sentence before her scheduled execution on Wednesday or a reprieve for at least 120 days to review evidence they say will show her innocence. Her attorneys, among them lawyers for the Innocence Project, are also arguing her case before the courts.
Calls for mercy have grown louder in recent days, including from Texas legislators on both sides of the aisle, and celebrities like Kim Kardashian. Even some jurors in Lucio’s state case now say her execution should be stopped or she should get a new trial based on evidence they did not hear.
At trial, prosecutors argued Lucio was an abusive mother who likely caused the injuries that resulted in her daughter Mariah’s death. But Lucio’s clemency petition says those were the result of an accidental fall down the stairs outside the family’s second-story apartment and authorities, plagued by a crucial misunderstanding about the fall, assumed Mariah’s injuries stemmed from abuse and discounted or ignored evidence that could have proven Lucio’s innocence.
Lucio, now 53, was convicted in large part, her attorneys argue, on the basis of a coerced “confession” she gave authorities in an “aggressive” late night interrogation the same night her daughter died. Lucio was particularly susceptible to coercion by authorities because of her history as a lifelong survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence, they say, citing medical experts who reviewed her case.
For Lucio’s surviving children like John, the prospect of losing their mother is hard to accept. He’s the first to admit his mother had “imperfections,” pointing to her struggles with drug addiction.
“But she’s a great mother,” he told CNN, who “never laid a hand on any of us.”
Living in ‘survival mode’
“It’s been a journey.”
That’s how John, 32, describes the decade-and-a-half since his mother was found guilty and sentenced to death. But the last several months have been the most nerve-racking, he said, after the court set her execution date.
“It was devastating news,” he said. “It just broke our family completely.”
It’s a big family. Lucio had 12 children at the time of Mariah’s death and then gave birth to twins while in prison. But Lucio’s children are “united in asking that their mother not be executed,” Tivon Schardl, a federal public defender and one of Lucio’s attorneys, told reporters last month, “that the pain that they’ve been suffering all these years, that those wounds be allowed to heal and not be torn open by the state of Texas.”
“They have lived now for 14 years with this threat hanging over them, after already losing Mariah to a tragic accident,” he said. “Now that trauma has come home.”
Lucio’s impending execution would follow a long series of traumatic events for her family, according to her son, her clemency petition and court documents.
Growing up was hard, John said, describing an impoverished childhood in which he watched his mother do her best but struggle to provide. There were times the family’s electricity or water was shut off for nonpayment or it had to rely on community organizations for food.
Child Protective Services records from that time “tell a story of Melissa’s love for the children, as well as her inability to care for them properly,” according to Lucio’s clemency petition. The home wasn’t clean, there wasn’t enough food, and the children didn’t have enough supervision, those records show, per the petition. They struggled with homelessness.
But among more than 1,000 pages of records, per her attorneys, none indicate the children ever reported being abused by Lucio.
“Basically, we were in survival mode,” John said. But his mother was no stranger to that, he added: Her own childhood was hard, and now she “was a very stressed woman. She was a battered woman,” he said. “She’d been through a lot.”
Lucio herself was sexually assaulted, abused and raped by her mother’s partners and others during her childhood, according to her petition. She continued to suffer abuse at the hands of her own partners, beginning at 16 when she dropped out of high school and married her first husband. By 23, she’d had five children with him, but he eventually abandoned the family, court documents say. Lucio married a second time to the man who fathered her younger children, Mariah among them.
In 2004, the seven youngest children were placed in foster care and split up among different homes – due to neglect, her attorneys said in a court filing, not abuse. But Lucio worked to bring them back, getting a job and staying off drugs, the petition says. Eventually, the family was reunited in the fall of 2006.
In hindsight, John feels his mother was not given the support she needed to properly care for her children. She had stayed off drugs, yes, but her life still wasn’t entirely stable, he said. She didn’t have a car or a reliable, long-term home.
“But of course, she’s not going to say, I can’t take them,” John said of his younger siblings being sent back home. “My mother had been fighting for her children for the past two years.”
A toddler’s death
The family undertook yet another move early the next year. Lucio woke up on February 15, 2007, got some of the children ready for school and then turned her attention to packing up their “run-down, second-floor apartment,” the petition says.
Meantime, she did her best to keep an eye on 2-year-old Mariah, who had trouble walking and was prone to falling due to a mild physical disability, court filings say. But while Lucio was busy, Mariah opened an unlocked screen door, wandered outside and fell down a “steep” flight of more than a dozen stairs that led to the apartment.
Lucio soon realized Mariah was missing and found her daughter outside, crying at the bottom of the stairs. Her lip was bleeding, but the 2-year-old appeared not to be seriously injured, the petition says.
But her appearance was deceptive: The girl had just suffered internal injuries that Lucio’s clemency petition says would lead to her death. Over the next two days, as the family moved, Mariah’s condition deteriorated – she slept excessively and eventually refused to eat. By February 17, Lucio was considering taking the 2-year-old to the doctor but chose to wait until the next day and put Mariah down for a nap.
Soon, Mariah stopped breathing, and the family called 911. Paramedics at the scene and the hospital tried but failed to resuscitate her. Her body was covered in bruises “in various stages of healing,” her arm had been broken several weeks earlier and she had a bite mark on her back, according to court documents recounting the case.
At the scene, Lucio told paramedics Mariah had fallen down the stairs days prior, but one of the emergency responders was skeptical, the petition says, because the residence was a single story with just a few steps out front. He didn’t understand, the petition says, that the girl had fallen at the family’s prior home.
“This critical misunderstanding set in motion an investigation plagued by tunnel vision,” Lucio’s petition says, “where the investigators continually assumed the worst about Melissa without investigating or considering alternatives.”
Reasons for doubt ‘are innumerable,’ petition says
That night, hours after Mariah’s death, Lucio – pregnant with twins – was interrogated by investigators, who, her attorneys write, “shouted at Melissa; berated her as a neglectful mother; repeatedly showed her photos of her dead child; and implied if she wasn’t at fault, one of her other children would have to be.”
Over the course of the interrogation, Lucio’s lawyers say she denied hurting Mariah more than 100 times. Lucio admitted to sometimes spanking her daughters on the buttocks, according to a motion filed by her attorneys after her execution date was set, but consistently denied allegations of abuse.
Eventually though, her resolve waned, and Lucio began “vaguely indicating she was ‘responsible’ for Mariah’s injuries,” her petition says. But she never confessed to being responsible for Mariah’s death, her attorneys say.
Lucio told investigators she would “spank” Mariah, according to court documents recounting the interrogation.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” she told investigators when asked for more details, per court documents. “I’m responsible for it.”
Hours into the interrogation, an investigator brought in a doll to have Lucio demonstrate how hard she would spank the child. After she did so, the investigator said, “Well do it real hard like … like you would do it.”