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Bipartisan Supporters Cheer as Melissa Lucio’s Execution Stayed by Texas Court

So what does that mean?

MSNBC Mehdi Hasan Show image in which the director of The State of Texas vs. Melissa Lucio is speaking wearing a Free Melissa Shirt. Image: screencap.

Melissa Lucio has gained national attention during the past few weeks, as her April 27 execution approached on death row. In 2007, one of Lucio’s children, Mariah, died, and ultimately, the state found Lucio guilty of murder and sentenced her to death. Lucio and her family stated that Mariah fell on dangerous stairs outside of the dilapidated apartment they lived in, and Lucio never beat her children (as the government argued she had).

Politicians, activists, and social justice groups from across the political spectrum (including advocates for the death penalty) have voiced support for a stay of execution, in light of the evidence that led to Lucio’s conviction being a “confession” coerced out of her in a lengthy interrogation. A stay of execution is basically like a pause—before any court order or judgment is carried out, not just the death penalty—so that there can be a revaluation of the situation. Today, the AP reported that this request was granted by a Texas appeals court.

Not only is the execution on pause indefinitely, but the court ordered a reevaluation at a lower court level (138th Judicial District Court of Cameron County, a.k.a. the original county that heard her case). Hours later, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) ordered the courts to consider new evidence. According to ABC, in a statement, Lucio said, “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.”

Why was Lucio sentenced to death?

From childhood through adulthood, Lucio experienced poverty and both physical and sexual abuse. As the mother of several children in her early 20s living in hostile environments, she, at one point, had her children taken from her by the state before getting them all back. In all of these circumstances, it was always about their environment and nothing regarding Lucio ever physically attacking them. When Mariah (born with a disability that made it difficult to walk) started acting strange days following the fall, help was called, though Mariah died.

Because Mariah had bruises (something a medical expert attributed to a rare blood-clotting disorder) and Lucio had a history of being around abusive people, the authorities thought it was her. Also, the stairs at their residence (they had just moved) were not the same ones Lucio and all witnesses said Mariah fell down. Lucio stated on the record, over 100 times, that she didn’t do it. After hours of police interrogation with no food or water and under the threat that they would go after one of her children if she did not “admit” guilt, Lucio half-heartedly agreed that she had. The case played out in courts, and Lucio was ultimately sentenced to the death penalty.

The documentary that sparked an outcry

The main drivers for attention towards this case include documentaries like The State of Texas vs. Melissa, a Last Week Tonight episode on wrongful convictions (and a later one on police interrogations), groups like The Innocence Project, and powerful celebrities like using their political pull. Director of the documentary and French journalist Sabrina Van Tassel started a GoFundMe to get Lucio whatever she needs while incarcerated. She told MSNBC she was disturbed to learn that in Lucio’s trial she basically had “no defense”, since none of her children were able to testify, and the testimony of kids saying they saw what happened was not shown in court.

The documentary gave background information on the climate that the Cameron County District Attorney (DA), Armando Villalobos, was in leading up to and through the case. Villalobos had a public blunder that resulted in the escape of a man convicted of murder, and he was running for reelection as the county DA. If he were to keep up the “tough on crime” look and get reelected, he needed a high-profile and heinous case. Lucio’s case provided him with this opportunity. Lucio’s court-appointed lawyer also later went to work for Villalobos.

After the documentary revealed more evidence, jurors started to speak out, too. Five out of twelve jurors feel like they would have voted differently if they had all the evidence in the case. Juror Johnny Galvan Jr. wrote an opinion for the Houston Chronicle saying he was wrong for voting to send her to death.

I first heard about Lucio’s case from video essayist Professor Flowers. She discussed the documentary and held a letter-writing campaign over a week ago “to beg the state to spare the life of [Lucio.]” If you don’t think you can handle the full documentary (available on f Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube) but want to be informed with some images and footage, Flowers’ 20-minute video is a vital resource.

What else can happen outside the trial?

While the execution has been stayed, activists are still wanting justice for Lucio. Before today, The Innocence Project and other groups suggested sharing the story online and contacting DA Saenz, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott cannot directly step in and do it himself, but he can pressure the BPP, as Abbott appoints members. Some only asked for a stay and for the case to be reopened. However, others want the board to recommend clemency so the governor can grant it, which they must do before he can do so.

If she is found innocent and is freed, the state will likely have to pay out for the 15 years lost while incarcerated and away from her children. She was pregnant with twins when she was first detained and was forced to give them up for adoption.

Also, the original DA’s other cases must be reconsidered, even if those people didn’t end up on death row like Lucio. In 2014, DA Villalobos was convicted for what My Rio Grande Valley News describes as “$100,000 in bribes and kickbacks in the form of cash and campaign contributions in return for favorable acts of prosecutorial discretion.”

(via Professor Flowers on YouTube, image: screencap)

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(she/her) Award-winning digital artist and blogger with experience and an educational background in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. A resident of the yeeHaw land, she spends most of her time watching movies, playing video games, and reading.