news·7 min read

She Was Going To Be The First Latina Executed in Texas. Then, A Court Stopped It.

An old photo of Melissa Lucio with a baby
Photo: The Lucio Family/The Innocence Project
Apr 25, 2022

On April 25, a Texas court halted the execution of 53-year-old Melissa Lucio. Just two days before she was set to die by lethal injection. Lucio’s been on death row for the murder of her two-year-old daughter. But new evidence has raised major doubts about whether she’s guilty. For months, thousands of people have been calling on the state to step in and stop her execution. Including Lucio’s family, a bipartisan group of over 100 Texas lawmakers, Amanda Knox, Kim Kardashian, John Oliver, and even five of the jurors in the original case. 

Lucio would have been the first Latina to be executed in TX’s history. And the first woman to be executed in the state since 2014. Now, a trial court is reviewing new evidence in her case and will decide next steps. Meaning, Lucio could still be executed. Here’s everything you need to know about her case — from the new evidence to what’s next.

Mariah Alvarez celebrating her birthday. Photo: The Lucio Family/The Innocence Project

A murder or devastating accident?

In 2008, Lucio was sentenced to death after she was found guilty of murdering her toddler Mariah Alvarez. But Lucio’s lawyers say her case was botched from the beginning. Here’s a breakdown of what happened, according to court documents:

  • Feb. 15, 2007: Lucio was preparing to move her family into a new home, while helping her older kids get ready for school. During that time, Mariah unlocked a screen door and wandered outside the apartment. She then fell down a “dilapidated” and steep flight of stairs. Lucio found the toddler at the bottom of the stairs. Mariah was crying and her lip was bleeding, but didn’t appear “seriously injured.” So, Lucio didn’t take her to the doctor.

  • Feb. 17, 2007: By this point, Mariah had been sleeping a lot and not eating. Lucio put her down for a nap. A short time later, Mariah stopped breathing. The family called 911 and first responders tried to revive the toddler. But doctors later pronounced Mariah dead at the hospital. 

  • Feb. 17, continued: “Aggressive, armed male interrogators” questioned Lucio — who was pregnant with twins — for more than five hours. They “berated her as a neglectful mother” and accused her of Mariah’s death. The Texas mom denied hurting her daughter over and over again (read: more than 100 times). She said she spanked Mariah on the butt but she wasn’t abusive to her children. At one point, Lucio told officers, “I don’t know what you want me to say” and “I guess I did it.”

Lucio was charged with capital murder after her “confession.” In the petition, her lawyers said the jury in the original case never heard expert testimony about the interrogation tactics used. And how they can trigger false confessions (which are more common than you think). Instead, the jurors heard from the medical examiner who testified that Mariah’s injuries could have only come from abuse. And from a Texas Ranger at the scene, who reportedly said Lucio didn’t show any concern and kept her head down, saying “I knew she did something.”

Since her conviction, Lucio has maintained her innocence. And there have been allegations of corruption in the case, which were profiled in the 2020 documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa.” Her lawyers — including those from the Innocence Project — say the entire case is an injustice. Which brings us to…

Melissa holds baby Mariah. Also pictured is her daughter Adriana. Photo: The Lucio Family/The Innocence Project

The fight to save Lucio’s life

This year, Lucio’s lawyers have filed multiple petitions including for clemency and to halt her execution. Both are bringing up:

  • The actual cause of death. Lucio’s lawyers say authorities didn’t take into account that Mariah had a mild physical disability. Which made her prone to falling. The petition says new forensic evidence supports that Mariah’s death was from internal injuries — which are visible in the autopsy. And that head trauma can lead to a blood disorder known to cause bruising. 

  • False testimony. Experts who reviewed the case say the medical examiner’s testimony was misleading. One pediatric surgeon noted there’s nothing to indicate Mariah’s injuries were a “result of an intentional act or abuse.” As for the Texas Ranger’s testimony, scientific studies have reportedly found that body language doesn't point to guilt or innocence. Note: One of Lucio’s kids said they saw Mariah fall down the stairs. It’s info the jurors didn’t hear. 

  • False evidence. Lawyers believe Lucio was coerced into confessing. Experts who reviewed the case say she was “relentlessly pressured and extensively manipulated” during her interrogation. And that the extended late-night questioning made her prone to making a false confession. They also point to Lucio’s trauma with sexual assault and domestic violence. Which can make her vulnerable to authorities’ aggressive and “manipulative” tactics. 

  • There’s no evidence of abuse. Child Protective Services records show no reports of abuse involving Lucio’s 12 children (before she had twins). And that while Lucio struggled with poverty, homelessness, and addiction, she didn’t hurt her children. 

  • Alleged corruption. Lucio’s legal team argues that former Cameron County DA Armando Villalobos used the case as a way to get support for his re-election campaign. In 2014, Villalobos was sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery. Read: He took money in exchange for things like case dismissals and reducing charges. 

One of Lucio’s lawyers said, “Police targeted Melissa because she didn’t fit their image of how a grieving mother should behave.” Now, some jurors from the original case have also come forward, saying Lucio shouldn’t be executed. And more than 100 Texas lawmakers on both sides of the aisle (see: this and this) called on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to step in.

Knox, whose murder conviction was overturned, has been supportive of Lucio. In a Medium post, she wrote Lucio was a “victim of abuse” and “was kidnapped into the abusive arms of the state of Texas.” And pointed to data saying 70% of women who’ve been exonerated in the last 30 years were thrown in jail for crimes that never happened. Kardashian, who’s been outspoken about criminal justice reform, said “there are so many unresolved questions surrounding this case.”

Melissa praying with Texas lawmakers in Gatesville, Texas. Photo: Rep. Jeff Leach

What’s next?

Lucio isn’t 100% safe from execution yet. It also isn’t clear when a lower court will review new evidence that could clear her of her daughter’s death. The court's expected to look into her lawyers’ claims including that false testimony was used and that Lucio may be innocent. 

Meanwhile, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles held off on weighing in on Lucio’s clemency petition as the court looks into the case. The board could have recommended Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) commute the sentence or issue a 120-day pause.

Lucio thanked the court for giving her a chance to live and prove her innocence. And her supporters for advocating on her behalf. Adding that she’s grateful “to have more days to be a mother to my children and a grandmother to my grandchildren.”

theSkimm

For many, Melissa Lucio’s conviction is an example of how the criminal justice system has failed countless people. Especially those belonging to vulnerable communities stricken by poverty, trauma, and abuse. But for now, Lucio’s safe from execution and may be given a chance to have a fair shot at proving her innocence. 

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