Nearly half of the jurors who sentenced a Texas woman to death for the 2007 death of one of her 14 children have called for her execution to be halted and for her to get a new trial.
Melissa Lucio, 52, is due to be executed Wednesday for the death of her 2-year-old daughter Mariah in Harlingen, a town of about 75,000 people on the southern tip of Texas.
Her lawyers say new evidence shows Mariah’s injuries, including a blow to the head, were caused by falling down a steep staircase, and many lawmakers and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, a law enforcement reform lawyer criminal justice, and Amanda Knox – an American who was convicted of murdering a British student in Italy and whose conviction was overturned – rallied to Lucio’s cause. Prosecutors, however, argue that the girl was abused.
Lucio’s lawyers have filed various legal actions to stop his execution. She also has a clemency petition before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which is due to hear her case on Monday. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott may also play a role in Lucio’s fate. If 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 as Lucio’s execution nears:
WHAT ISSUES ARE DEBATED IN THE CASE?
Lucio’s lawyers say his capital murder conviction was based on an unreliable and coerced confession that resulted from relentless questioning and his long history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. They say Lucio was not allowed to present evidence challenging the validity of her confession.
Her lawyers also argue that unscientific and false evidence misled jurors into believing that Mariah’s injuries could only have been caused by physical abuse and not medical complications from a serious fall.
“I knew what I was accused of doing was not true. My children have always been my world and even if my life choices were not good, I would never have hurt any of my children in this way,” Lucio wrote in a letter to Texas lawmakers.
Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, whose office prosecuted the case, said he disagreed with Lucio’s attorneys’ claims that new evidence would exonerate him. Prosecutors say Lucio had a history of drug addiction and at times lost custody of some of his 14 children.
During a sometimes contentious Texas House committee hearing on Lucio’s case this month, Saenz initially rebuffed requests to use his power to stop the execution, before later saying that would intervene if the courts did not act.
“I don’t disagree with all the scrutiny this case is receiving. I’m looking forward to that,” Saenz said.
Armando Villalobos was the county district attorney when Lucio was convicted in 2008, and Lucio’s attorneys allege he pushed for a conviction to help his re-election bid. In 2014, Villalobos was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison for a bribery scheme related to offering favorable prosecution rulings.
WHO IS DEMANDING A STOP OF THE EXECUTION OF LUCIO?
More than half the members of the Texas House and Senate have called for a halt to his execution. A bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers this month traveled to Gatesville, where the state houses female death row inmates, and prayed with Lucio.
Five of the 12 jurors who convicted Lucio and a substitute juror questioned their decision and asked him to get a new trial. And Lucio’s cause also has the support of religious leaders and has been featured on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
Lucio’s family and supporters traveled across Texas and held rallies and screenings of a 2020 documentary about his case, “The State of Texas vs. Melissa.”
WHERE ARE THE EFFORTS TO STOP HIS EXECUTION?
Appeals to prevent Lucio’s execution are pending in state and federal courts.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Pardons is considering a request to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment or grant him a 120-day reprieve.
Any decision by the parole board to commute his sentence or grant the reprieve would require Abbott’s approval. The governor, who has only granted clemency to one death row inmate since taking office in 2015, could also unilaterally issue a 30-day stay of execution. Abbott commuted the death sentence to life without parole for Thomas “Bart” Whitaker, who was convicted of shooting and killing his mother and brother. Whitaker’s father was also shot but survived and led the effort to spare his son’s life.
HOW OFTEN ARE WOMEN EXECUTED?
It is rare in the United States for a woman to be executed, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that opposes capital punishment. Women make up just 3.6% of the more than 16,000 confirmed executions in the United States since the colonial period of the 1600s, according to the group’s data.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 17 women have been executed nationwide, the data shows. Texas has put more women to death – six – than any other state. Oklahoma is next, with three, and Florida has run two.
The federal government has executed a woman since 1976. Lisa Montgomery of Kansas received a lethal injection in January 2021 after the Trump administration resumed executions in the federal system after a 17-year hiatus. The Just Department halted executions again under the Biden administration.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70.