Melissa Lucio is scheduled to be executed on April 27, 2022. She is the first Latina woman to face the death penalty in Texas, but one of many people on death row whose guilt has been called into question. In Lucio’s case, doubts abound. She was sentenced in 2008 after the death of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah, who suffered blunt-force trauma to the head that caused internal bleeding. Lucio has maintained her innocence for the past fourteen years, but a coerced “confession” after hours of relentless police interrogation, during which she was denied food and sleep, convinced the jury.
At every turn, the case against Lucio was riddled with problems. The pathologist who categorized Mariah’s death as a homicide cited extensive bruising on her body as evidence of abuse, but a forensic pathologist consulted during Lucio’s appeal explained that one symptom of the head injury might have been a cerebral edema, which can lead to blood-clotting problems that cause extreme bruising from even minor contact. This seems like the much more likely explanation, given ample documentation from Child Protective Services over several years that Lucio, though not a perfect mother, was never physically abusive. The defense attorney originally assigned to Lucio’s case, Peter Gilman, neglected to call any of Lucio’s children to the witness stand, including the son who saw Mariah fall down a steep flight of external stairs and bang her head on the ground two days before her death. Nor did Gilman make use of the evidence provided by Melissa’s eldest daughter, who admitted in an interview with a mitigation specialist that she “was the reason” for Mariah’s fall. Instead, Gilman told the specialist not to disclose that information to anyone. Shortly after Lucio’s conviction, Gilman took a job working for the district attorney’s office. The DA himself was later indicted on several counts of corruption and bribery. At the time of Lucio’s trial, he was about to run for reelection and was taking a special interest in cases that would make him look like a crusader against child abuse. Meanwhile, psychologists who argued that Lucio’s own history of having been physically and sexually abused made her particularly susceptible to the aggressive psychological tactics of her police interrogators—thus rendering her confession invalid—were deemed “irrelevant” by the judge and prohibited from testifying.