Melissa Lucio’s Execution Was Put on Hold, But Threat of Death Penalty Remains

On April 25, a Texas appeals court issued a stay halting the execution of Melissa Lucio, a 53-year-old mother and grandmother who has been imprisoned since 2007 while the district court considers new evidence of her innocence. Still, the threat of execution still hangs over her head.

The stay follows a groundswell of grassroots organizing throughout Texas that has drawn attention about her case, including mounting evidence that she was wrongfully convicted for a crime that never happened.

As Truthout reported previously, Lucio was prosecuted and convicted based on a coerced false confession. In February 2007, while she and her family were in the midst of moving from their second-floor apartment, her 2-year-old daughter Mariah fell down a steep flight of stairs. Mariah had a congenital foot deformity that required special shoes. It also made her prone to falling; previous falls had been documented by child welfare agencies and teachers at the Head Start she had attended. (See Article 53 in link.)

Although she cried, the toddler seemed fine after the fall. The following day, however, she threw up after eating breakfast and, by the next day, had lost her appetite altogether. She seemed lethargic, which Lucio attributed to a cold and put her down for a nap. Later that evening, she was unresponsive when her father tried to wake her. One of the older children called 911. Paramedics arrived and unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate the child before rushing her to the emergency room. Mariah was dead by the time they arrived.

Lucio explained that her daughter had fallen down the stairs two days earlier, but not that the accident had happened at their previous home. Their new home had only three steps, raising the paramedics’ suspicions.

The state’s medical examiner found bruises and marks that she claimed were bite marks on the girl’s body — and concluded that Mariah had been severely abused. Nine years later, in 2016, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology would conclude that forensic bite mark evidence is not scientifically relevant. That same year, the Texas Forensic Science Commission reached the same conclusion, calling for an end to bite mark testimony in criminal trials. But all of that was to come years later.

That night, police took Lucio into custody and subjected her to a five-hour interrogation, lasting until 3 am, yelling, berating and threatening her. Lucio, who had experienced a lifetime of sexual and physical abuse from adult men, including her mother’s boyfriend, her husband and her current partner, asserted her innocence more than 100 times. But after five hours, she acquiesced to their demands, mumbling, “I guess I did it.”

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, approximately 40 percent of women who have been exonerated had been wrongfully convicted of crimes involving children. Nearly 30 percent had been wrongfully convicted of killing children and 63 percent had been convicted of crimes that never happened — such as accidents or events that were fabricated.

Armed with her confession, Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, seeking reelection that year, charged Lucio with capital murder. Her defense attorney, Peter Gilman, had never handled a death penalty case before. Although several of Lucio’s older children had seen their sister fall down the stairs, Gilman failed to call any to the stand.

He did attempt to introduce two expert witnesses to contextualize the ways in which Lucio’s history of sexual abuse had conditioned her to acquiesce to male authority figures, making her more vulnerable to making a false confession, but the trial judge excluded both.

The jury convicted her. Two days later, she was sentenced to die. She is one of six on the women’s death row unit at the Mountain View Unit at Gatesville, Texas. She is also the first Latina woman that the state has sentenced to death.

The following year, Gilman was hired by the prosecutor’s office, where he remains an assistant district attorney. In 2014, Villalobos, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for over $100,000 in bribery and extortion in exchange for prosecutorial discretion, such as minimizing charges or agreeing to pretrial diversion.

Melissa Lucio sits with her daughters Mariah and Adriana.
Melissa Lucio sits with her daughters Mariah and Adriana.

An Execution Date and Organizing Against the Clock

Lucio’s conviction and death sentence began garnering wider attention in 2021 after Hulu released the documentary The State of Texas vs. Melissa. Filmmaker Sabrina Van Tassel, joined by Lucio’s now-adult children and her mother, have held screenings and discussions across Texas to raise awareness and outrage.

In January 2022, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz filed a motion for an April execution date. Judge Gabriela Garcia of the 138th District Court signed an order setting Lucio’s execution for April 27. She would become the first woman executed by Texas since 2014.

On February 8, Lucio’s lawyers filed a motion to withdraw or modify her execution date, arguing that she was wrongfully convicted. That motion remains pending before the same court that set her execution date.

Ten days later, on February 18, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an international body tasked with overseeing human rights in the Western Hemisphere, adopted a resolution requesting that the U.S. not execute Lucio until the commission can reach a decision on the December petition filed by Sandra Babcock of the Alice Project of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and Cornell law students. In the petition, they argued that Lucio had been inadequately represented at trial, and also that her limited cognitive abilities, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder render her more vulnerable to the acute trauma of solitary confinement.

“As with all international law, there is no way the IACHR can force Texas to comply,” explained Babcock. “Nevertheless, other state prosecutors — including a Texas prosecutor in neighboring Hidalgo County, Texas — have agreed to postpone executions so that the IACHR can complete its review process. The IACHR is widely respected throughout the Americas. If Texas ignores its decision, it would place the United States in the position of violating its international legal obligations. This undermines the reputation of the U.S. as a country that upholds the rule of law.”

On March 22, 2022, Lucio’s attorneys filed a clemency petition, which included declarations by four jurors stating that evidence was withheld from them during trial and that they had been pressured into making a decision. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles typically makes its decision 48 hours before a scheduled execution, but following the stay, the board announced that it would not make a clemency recommendation.

On April 15, attorneys filed a 242-page application for a writ of habeas corpus asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stay her execution and vacate her conviction and death sentence. The filing notes new scientific and expert evidence showing that Melissa’s conviction was based on an unreliable, coerced confession as well as unscientific false evidence, such as the bite mark testimony, that misled the jury.

That is one of four requests for a stay of execution currently before the appeals court. Attorneys have also filed federal litigation before the Fifth Circuit and a suggestion for reconsideration pending in the Court of Criminal Appeals.

People rallying to free Melissa Lucio drop a banner over I-30 in Dallas–Fort Worth, Texas, on April 23, 2022.
People rallying to free Melissa Lucio drop a banner over I-30 in Dallas–Fort Worth, Texas, on April 23, 2022.

An Outpouring of Public Outrage Saved Michelle Byrom

This is not the first time that a groundswell of grassroots support has stopped an execution. In Mississippi, 14 years after she had been sentenced to death, media attention led to a groundswell of outrage resulting in Michelle Byrom’s freedom.

Like Lucio, Byrom’s life had been marked by sexual and physical violence from the adult men in her life — from her stepfather to her husband, Edward Byrom Sr.

The couple met and moved in together when she was 15 and he was 31. He was verbally, physically and sexually abusive towards her and their son, Edward Jr., who was born when she was 18.

On June 4, 1999, Michelle Byrom was in a Mississippi hospital for double pneumonia. That night, after his father had physically attacked him, Edward Jr. shot and killed him. He told police that his mother had hired his friend to murder Edward Sr.

Police interrogated Byrom in the hospital. According to the Jackson Free Press, she was on at least 12 powerful drugs when questioned but still denied any involvement. It was not until County Sheriff David Smith told her that her son had confessed and encouraged her not to let him take full responsibility that she repeated the details that police wanted to hear — she had hired her son’s friend to kill her husband.

Byrom was charged with capital murder. At trial, Edward Jr. testified against her. Her defense attorneys presented no information about her history of abuse or resulting mental illnesses. She was convicted and sentenced to death.

In 2014, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood requested an execution date, prompting media scrutiny into her conviction. Journalists found a pretrial confession from Edward Jr. to his mother, one that Byrom had never seen. That was not the only confession he had made; he had also confessed to the court-appointed forensic psychologist.

The story — of an abuse victim wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death — garnered outrage. People called the governor’s office to stop the execution. In March 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed her death sentence and ordered a new trial.

But the prosecutor’s office announced it would retry her and Byrom remained behind bars for another two years. In 2016, she took an Alford plea, in which she pled guilty while still maintaining her innocence, in exchange for time served. She was released that June after 16 years of wrongful imprisonment, 14 of which were on death row.

Michelle Byrom had three and a half years of freedom before dying in 2019 of breast cancer that had been diagnosed and metastasized during her imprisonment.

In Texas, a Groundswell of Organizing

Lucio’s looming execution also prompted a flurry of grassroots organizing across the state. Family members joined with anti-death penalty advocates to raise awareness about Lucio’s death sentence. Every Saturday evening, after visiting his mother on death row, Lucio’s oldest son, John, hosts a weekly group update with advocates across the state. Over the past month, the number of attendees has grown from approximately 20 to several hundred.

Organizers throughout Texas have hosted letter-writing parties, both in-person and virtual, in which supporters wrote individual handwritten letters to the Board of Pardons and Paroles as well as to individual board members’ offices. Jordan Martinez-Mazurek of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls estimates that over 800 handwritten letters were mailed to board members.

In Brownsville, organizers held daily mid-afternoon vigils outside District Attorney Luis Saenz’s office. On March 23, during one of those vigils, Lucio’s son John talked to Saenz in the parking lot, urging him to withdraw the execution warrant. Saenz said that he understood the family’s position, but was non-committal.

The heightened attention brought in bipartisan support from over 100 Texas lawmakers, who sent letters to the governor calling on him to stop the execution.

In early April, seven Texas state representatives traveled to Gatesville to meet with Lucio. Several days later, some joined a protest outside Dallas City Hall, calling on Governor Abbott and Saenz to stop the execution.

Several days later, on April 12, they convened a state committee hearing about Lucio’s case. After being questioned for over an hour, Saenz appeared to shift his stance, stating, “If defendant Lucio does not get a stay by a certain day, then I will do what I have to do and stop it.”

On April 22, organizers delivered petitions to Saenz’s office, demanding that he withdraw the execution warrant. That same day, the IACHR sent a letter to Abbott’s office urging him to stay the execution.

The following day, organizers held coordinated protests in 16 cities nationwide. In Texas, they rallied outside the governor’s mansion in Austin, the federal courthouse in Brownsville, and several parks. In Dallas-Fort Worth, one set of organizers rallied outside a pancake house while another group dropped a “Free Melissa Lucio” banner over an interstate where hundreds of passing cars honked their support. In other states, supporters also held rallies outside state houses, city halls and local parks.

On Monday, they drove to the governor’s mansion in Austin to hand deliver petitions demanding that he stop Lucio’s execution.

“There’s been just like a grass fire across Texas fighting for Melissa,” said Martinez-Mazurek. “The fire took a little time to spread, but I’ve heard it spread to every corner of the state by this point.”

Execution Stayed But Not Stopped

While the appeals court has paused her execution date, Saenz has not withdrawn the execution warrant.

Meanwhile, Lucio’s case has been sent to the 138th District Court for an evidentiary hearing about four of her claims — her actual innocence, the use of false testimony at trial, that the prosecution failed to disclose favorable evidence, and that new scientific evidence proves her innocence.

“We’re confident that with the scientific evidence, if Melissa were retried today, she’d be acquitted,” stated Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project and one of Lucio’s lawyers, at a press conference shortly after the stay was announced.

From death row, Lucio issued her own statement: “I thank God for my life. I have always trusted in Him. I am grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in my heart today and always. I am grateful to have more days to be a mother to my children and a grandmother to my grandchildren. I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf.”

Lucio’s family are also extraordinarily happy that her death has been averted — and hope that she’s one step closer to coming home. “For everybody who has stood by my sister and her innocence, thank you,” her sister Sonya Valencia said at the press conference. “We’re waiting for Melissa to come home.”

That’s what Jaden Janak from Fight Toxic Prisons and another of Lucio’s supporters hopes too. “Though we are happy about the stay and pending evidentiary hearing, we know our work is not done,” they told Truthout. “We will continue pressuring lawmakers, advocating for Melissa, and raising awareness about her case until she is at home with her family. Not on an ankle monitor. Not serving life without the possibility of parole. But at home free from the shackles of the criminal [in]justice system.”