Melissa Lucio, mother and abuse survivor, faces execution next month.
By Jess Bugg, Photos courtesy of The Innocence Project
If you couldn’t already tell from the ever-growing number of podcasts, documentaries and television series dedicated to murder, our society is obsessed with true crime. Unfortunately, this often turns tragic events into entertainment. Details are presented as salacious or shocking in order to gain viewership, and it’s easy to lose sight of reality. These cases involve complicated human beings who are suffering. Audiences often find themselves hoping for the most scandalous outcome. As if envisioning characters in a thriller rather than their friends and neighbors.
However, there is a flip side to this. With the growing interest in true crime, a wider population is also inadvertently gaining an education on the justice system and the corruption and oppression that is often present in these convictions. More eyes on the justice system, especially in cases like Melissa Lucio’s can only lead to improvement. Texas is the leader of executions in the nation with 573 people put to death since 1982. At least 186 people have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Texas since 1973 and were later cleared after years spent on death row.
A Tragic Loss
In 2007, Mariah, the youngest of Lucio’s 12 children, tragically fell down a flight of stairs outside the family’s apartment in Harlingen, Texas. The toddler had a mild physical disability that sometimes made her unstable when walking and prone to tripping. Two days after her fall, she passed away while napping. Lucio, who was pregnant at the time, was immediately taken into custody and interrogated for several hours. According to the State, Lucio did not behave like a grieving mother. The toddler had bruises, bite marks and a broken arm at the time of her passing, and the State maintains Lucio beat her daughter to death.
The Marshall Project reported that at 3 a.m. after several hours of interrogation, Texas Ranger Victor Escalon Jr. handed Lucio a doll showing her the locations of the bruises on her daughter and asked her to hit those spots. Lucio admitted to hitting her daughter saying, “I just did it.” This was framed as a full confession of murder. According to a 2011 research study, survivors of sexual abuse and violence are more likely to falsely confess under coercion. According to Lucio, she repeatedly denied striking her daughter until finally giving in as a way to make the interrogation end. “They just kept pointing fingers at me and threatening me and telling me that I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison, that I wasn’t going to be able to see the rest of my children grow up and get married.”
A Cycle of Abuse
According to Lucio’s children, she was never violent with them, and no physical evidence proved otherwise. Lucio was a survivor of repeated sexual assault and domestic violence, which first began at the age of 6. She became a child bride at the age of 16 in an effort to escape the violence taking place in her home. However, her husband continued the cycle of abuse. As a way to self-medicate, Lucio developed a substance use problem. Her second spouse, Mariah’s father, was also violent and sexually abused Lucio. Her history of abuse may have shaped her reaction immediately following her child’s death, but the jury was not made aware of this.
The Trial of Melissa Lucio
According to Texas Public Radio, experts were prevented from testifying on Lucio’s behalf. However, the Texas ranger who first interrogated Lucio was allowed to testify. He believed her passive reaction to the death of her child as well as her slumped posture and inability to make eye contact indicated her guilt, saying, “Right there and then, I knew she did something.”
A pathologist testified that Mariah’s autopsy revealed her injuries were consistent with a death from blunt-force trauma, and court documents state the emergency room doctor that attempted to revive her said it was the worst case of child abuse he had ever seen. Cameron County D.A. Armando Villalobos was running for reelection at the time and sought the death penalty for Lucio. He is currently serving a 13-year federal prison sentence for bribery and extortion.
In 2008, Lucio was convicted of murder and has been on death row for 14 years. She has maintained her innocence the entire time and has no prior record of violence. This past February, the State of Texas scheduled Lucio’s execution to take place on April 27. There are currently 197 inmates on death row in Texas, six of whom are women. If Lucio is put to death next month, she would be the first Latina executed in Texas.