What to know about Melissa Lucio’s delayed execution

Lucio, 52, had been set to be executed by lethal injection on Wednesday (US time) for the death of her two-year-old daughter Mariah in Harlingen, a town on Texas’ southern tip.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals intervened today, granting Lucio’s lawyers’ request for a stay of execution so a lower court can review claims that new evidence would show Mariah’s injuries, including a blow to the head, were caused by a fall down a steep staircase.

Texas death row inmate Melissa Lucio is holding her daughter Mariah, while one of her other daughters, Adriana, stands next to them. (AP)

Nearly half of the jurors who sentenced her to die for the 2007 death of one of her 14 children had called for her execution to be halted and for her to get a new trial.

Many lawmakers and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, an advocate for criminal justice reform, and Amanda Knox — an American whose murder conviction in the death of a British student in Italy was overturned — have rallied to Lucio’s cause.

Prosecutors, though, maintain the girl was the victim of child abuse.

Inside America’s death chambers

Lucio’s lawyers had filed various legal appeals seeking to stop her execution.

She also had a clemency application before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which had been set to consider her case today.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott could have also played a role this week in deciding Lucio’s fate.

If ultimately put to death, Lucio would be the first Latina ever executed by Texas and the first woman the state has put to death since 2014.

Here’s what to know about the case.

What issues are being debated?

Lucio’s attorneys say her capital murder conviction was based on an unreliable and coerced confession that was the result of relentless questioning and her long history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

They say Lucio wasn’t allowed to present evidence questioning the validity of her confession.

Her lawyers also contend that unscientific and false evidence misled jurors into believing Mariah’s injuries only could have been caused by physical abuse and not by medical complications from a severe fall.

Texas death row inmate Melissa Lucio is holding one of her sons, John.
Texas death row inmate Melissa Lucio is holding one of her sons, John. (AP)

“I knew that what I was accused of doing was not true. My children have always been my world and although my choices in life were not good I would have never hurt any of my children in such a way,” Lucio wrote in a letter to Texas lawmakers.

Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, whose office prosecuted the case, has said he disagrees with Lucio’s lawyers’ claims that new evidence would exonerate her.

Prosecutors say Lucio had a history of drug abuse and at times had lost custody of some of her 14 children.

During a sometimes contentious Texas House committee hearing on Lucio’s case this month, Mr Saenz initially pushed back on requests to use his power to stop the execution, before later saying he would intervene if the courts didn’t act.

“I don’t disagree with all the scrutiny this case is getting. I welcome that,” Mr Saenz said.

Armando Villalobos was the county’s district attorney when Lucio was convicted in 2008, and Lucio’s lawyers allege that he pushed for a conviction to help his reelection bid.

In 2014, Mr Villalobos was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison for a bribery scheme related to offering favourable prosecutorial decisions.

Who is calling for Lucio’s execution to be stopped?

More than half the members of the Texas Legislature have asked that her execution be halted.

A bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers travelled this month to Gatesville, where the state houses female death row inmates, and prayed with Lucio.

Sonya Valencia Alvarez sister of Melissa Lucio pleas to the public while surrounded by family and friends in Brownsville, Texas.
Sonya Valencia Alvarez sister of Melissa Lucio pleas to the public while surrounded by family and friends in Brownsville, Texas. (AP)

Five of the 12 jurors who sentenced Lucio and one alternate juror have questioned their decision and asked she get a new trial.

Lucio’s family and supporters have been traveling throughout Texas and holding rallies and screenings of a 2020 documentary about her case, The State of Texas vs Melissa.

Where do efforts to halt her execution stand?

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had been set to consider a request to either commute her death sentence to life imprisonment or grant her a 120-day execution reprieve, but that hearing was put off by the appeals court’s order.

Lucio also had an appeal pending in federal court to stop her execution.

The federal appeal and the clemency petition are now put aside as the case returns to the trial judge in Brownsville.

It was not immediately known when the lower court would begin reviewing her case.

Tivon Schardl, one of Lucio’s lawyers, said they hope to convince the trial judge to recommend that the appeals court grant her a new trial.

Seventy-seven-year-old Esperanza Treviño mother of Melissa Lucio pleas to the public for Ms Lucio to be released from death row.
Seventy-seven-year-old Esperanza Treviño mother of Melissa Lucio pleas to the public for Ms Lucio to be released from death row. (AP)

If the board had taken up her case and decided to recommend commutation of her sentence or a reprieve, that would have needed Abbott’s approval.

The governor has granted clemency to only one death row inmate since taking office in 2015.

Mr Abbott commuted a death sentence to life without parole for Thomas “Bart” Whitaker, who was convicted of fatally shooting his mother and brother.

Whitaker’s father was also shot but survived and led the effort to spare his son’s life.

How frequently are women executed?

It’s rare in the US, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Centre, a nonprofit that takes no position on capital punishment but has criticised the way states carry out executions.

Women have accounted for only 3.6 per cent of the more than 16,000 confirmed executions in the US dating back to the colonial period in the 1600s.

Since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 17 women have been executed throughout the nation.

Texas has put more women to death — six — than any other state. Oklahoma is next, with three, and Florida has executed two.

The federal US government has executed one woman since 1976.

Lisa Montgomery, of Kansas, received a lethal injection in January 2021 after the Trump administration resumed executions in the federal system following a 17-year hiatus.

The Justice Department has halted executions again under the Biden administration.


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