A small group of protestors are standing outside the Cameron County Courthouse in Brownsville, Texas in early February.
The group is chanting “Free Melissa Lucio!”
Melissa Elizabeth Lucio is the first Latina to be put on death row in Texas.
In 2008, she was convicted of capital murder after the death of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah Elizabeth Alvarez.
“She is an innocent woman,” said John Lucio, Melissa’s eldest son, at a protest outside of the Cameron County Courthouse on February 11. “She is not guilty of the death of my baby sister.”
John, as well as other family members and supporters of Melissa Lucio, believes she is innocent and that she did not receive a fair trial 14 years ago. Throughout all these years, Melissa has maintained her innocence.
Melissa was also recently the focus of a deep-dive investigative documentary, The State of Texas v. Melissa, which looked into questions some still have surrounding Melissa’s trial.
“I really did not know much about her case, apart from the fact that, you know, she was there because she supposedly had killed her daughter,” said Sabrina Van Tassel, the director of the documentary. “I met Melissa … and everything in me, like every single cell in my body, was telling me, ‘This just cannot be. I don’t believe it. There’s just much more to this story.'”
The documentary examines key elements that were used to convict Melissa, including her testimony to local law enforcement, which supporters argue resulted in a coerced confession. There were also interviews that were not presented during trial, such as those from eye witnesses and experts who could have testified about Melissa’s history of sexual abuse and more.
The documentary also challenges the competence of Melissa’s defense. Recent articles from The Marshall Project and The Intercept also explored key aspects of Melissa’s case: her history as a survivor of abuse, the role it played in her supposed confession, and the possibility that she was convicted for a crime that didn’t occur.
In 2019, the Fifth Circuit Court Appeals seemed to agree with Melissa’s defense and opened the door to the possibility for a new trial. It was only the second time the court had granted this appeal since 2000. However, the state of Texas appealed the ruling and the court backtracked its decision.
A few months later, an execution date was set for Melissa: she is scheduled to die by lethal injection on April 27. She would be the first Latina to be executed by the state of Texas in 160 years. Before Melissa, Josefa “Chipita” Rodríguez was charged with murder, even though there was no evidence against her and she insisted she was innocent. She was sentenced and hanged. In 1985, over a century after her death, the Texas legislature absolved Rodríguez of the murder, and she was posthumously pardoned.
On March 22, a petition for clemency was filed on Melissa Lucio’s behalf with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott. The clemency application presents new forensic analyses, which support the argument that Melissa was wrongly convicted, as well as the declarations from four jurors, who convicted Melissa in her trial, but now say they have “grave concerns about evidence withheld from them.” The application asks for the commutation of the death sentence to a lesser penalty or a 120-day reprieve from execution. For now, Melissa’s execution remains scheduled for late April.
In this episode of Latino USA, we look into Melissa Lucio’s story, we hear from her family about how Melissa’s conviction has destroyed their lives, and we learn about their race to save her life before it’s too late.