‘Texas Justice’

Melissa Lucio faces execution.
Melissa Lucio with her daughters Mariah and Adriana (Image courtesy of the Lucio family via the Innocence Project)

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.

At every turn, the case against Lucio was riddled with problems.

In 2019, Texas’s Fifth Circuit overturned Lucio’s conviction, agreeing that she had not been granted a complete defense, but when the state of Texas appealed, the court reinstated the conviction. Lucio lost her last hope for appeal when the Supreme Court declined to hear her case. Her only chance now is intercession by Texas governor Greg Abbott, who has previously referred to the death penalty as “Texas justice.” Faith-based and secular groups have both reached out to Abbott, pleading for him to reconsider the case. Lucio’s bishop, Daniel Flores, wrote, “One tragedy is not somehow made better by killing someone else. Justice is not suddenly restored because another person dies.” This is consistent with Pope Francis’s clear stance on the death penalty as “inadmissable.” The Church is opposed to capital punishment because it recognizes the human dignity of every person, even those who do commit horrific crimes. But a case like Melissa Lucio’s reminds us that, in our deeply flawed criminal-justice system, the innocent may also be executed.

When her daughter died, Lucio was living well below the poverty line; she and her children were often cramped into tiny quarters, and were sometimes even homeless. “Texas justice” could have meant providing her with the resources she needed to care for her family. It should not mean ignoring or suppressing evidence in the rush to execute another poor person.

Published in the April 2022 issue: 

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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