More than half of the Texas House want to stop the execution of Melissa Lucio, who was convicted of murdering her toddler

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas — More than half of members of the Texas House of Representatives are calling on the state’s parole board to halt next month’s planned execution of Melissa Lucio, who would otherwise become Texas’ first executed Latina.

Widespread doubts about Lucio’s guilt in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, as well as a cry for clemency from her other children, spurred a bipartisan group of nearly 90 lawmakers to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov Greg Abbott to change Lucio’s death sentence to either life imprisonment or stay their execution for three months.

“If we do everything we can to make sure an innocent Texan doesn’t get killed by the state, or even a potentially innocent Texan doesn’t get killed by the state … we strengthen our criminal justice system,” said Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano -Republican, the co-chair of the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said Thursday at a news conference at the Texas Capitol.

Lucio, 53, has been jailed since the death of her daughter Mariah in February 2007. The family called 911 after the toddler became unresponsive at their Harlingen home. Numerous bruises, scratches and what appeared to be bite marks on her body led police investigators to believe the child had been killed. It was later determined that Mariah’s death was caused by a blunt head injury.

Lucio was the prime suspect as police said she was mostly alone with the child. Lucio repeatedly told police during a late-night interrogation that she did not harm her child. Mariah had fallen down the stairs at her apartment a few days earlier, she and other children told police. At the time, Lucio was living with her husband and nine of their children. Mariah was Lucio’s twelfth and youngest child.

After about three hours of interrogation, when asked by police, Lucio admitted to hitting and biting Mariah. She still denied any involvement in a head injury.

“What can I say? I’m responsible for this,” Lucio said as a Texas Ranger pointed out the obvious bite mark on Mariah’s back.

Lucio’s testimony, in which he admitted hitting and biting her child, was the crux of the state’s charges against her. Although she did not admit to killing her child or causing fatal injury, her admission of child molestation led Cameron County prosecutors and a jury to connect her to the child’s death and find that she deserved the death penalty.

The confessions Lucio made during the more than five-hour interrogation on the day of her daughter’s death were dubious from the start. During the trial, the judge would not allow a psychologist to testify as to why Lucio might admit to things she didn’t do, including her history of sexual abuse as a child and domestic violence as an adult.

According to the National Exoneration Register, approximately 12% of convictions found to be unlawful are based, at least in part, on false confessions. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, pointed to the proliferation of false confessions and interrogation techniques that prompted her at Thursday’s criminal justice reform press conference.

“The techniques used to secure her testimony … have been shown to wear suspects down into false confessions,” Thompson said.

Lucio’s legal defense team, which now includes the Innocence Project, has asked various courts to stop the execution, citing in part new pathological investigations supporting the theory that Mariah died of falling down the stairs. Lucio’s children, siblings and mother have sought publicity inside and outside the Rio Grande Valley to raise awareness of their mother’s declaration of innocence. House lawmakers have centered their focus on the parole board.

“As policymakers, we have a duty to stand up and speak out, especially those of us who consider ourselves pro-life, pro-women and pro-law and order,” said Rep. Lacey Hull, a freshman Republican Houston. “As much as we all want justice for Mariah, the facts simply do not support a conclusion that Ms. Lucio committed fatal murder and deserves the ultimate punishment.”

About a month before an execution, the parole board reviews applications from convicted prisoners seeking pardons. Board members can either recommend changing the sentence to life imprisonment or delaying the execution. If the board recommends exoneration, the governor may accept or reject it. If the board does not recommend relief, the governor can postpone an execution for a maximum of 30 days.

Although the board does not consider legal issues, House lawmakers urged to consider Lucio’s possible innocence, as well as pleas from her children to let her live, and her conversion in prison and commitment to Catholicism. Thompson mentioned the case of Henry Lee Lucas, a convicted serial killer whose death row former Governor George W. Bush was commuted to life in prison in 1998 over doubts about Lucas’ guilt in the murder that put him on death row.

Lucio’s case marks the second time the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, established in 2019 by statesmen Joe Moody and Leach, has attempted to intervene in a pending execution. That year, 26 lawmakers asked the parole board to spare the life of Rodney Reed, whose guilt in a 1996 murder in Bastrop is also widely disputed. The board recommended that Abbott delay the execution by 120 days, but Reed’s execution was instead stopped by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals over legal challenges.

Lucio has received support from more than three times as many of the Chamber’s 150 members as Reed.

As of 10:00 a.m. Thursday, 87 lawmakers had signed the letter from the caucus to the parole board, which they planned to send out at 5:00 p.m., with other members adding their names. Moody said he is proud that the caucus – which arose out of frustration at the legislature’s failure to pass criminal justice reforms – has spurred a surge of support for Lucio.

“It’s easy to fire people like Melissa Lucio. In fact, the system is set up so that we forget them and treat them as less than human,” the El Paso Democrat said. “I hope this is a moment where we in Texas turn the tide for a fairer system, for a fairer system.”

From the Texas Tribune More than half of the Texas House want to stop the execution of Melissa Lucio, who was convicted of murdering her toddler

Dais Johnston

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