The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a stay of execution for Melissa Lucio, a South Texas woman believed by many to be wrongly convicted of capital murder in the death of her 2-year-old daughter.
Lucio was scheduled for execution on Wednesday, April 27. Today’s decision will see the 138th Judicial District Court of Cameron Country consider new evidence of Lucio’s innocence.
“I thank God for my life,” Lucio said in a statement. “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 will use my time to help bring them to Christ. I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf.”
In 2007, paramedics in Harlingen, Texas responded to a call about Lucio’s two-year-old daughter, Mariah, who was unresponsive and not breathing in their home. Mariah suffered from a physical disability that made her unstable when walking, and days earlier her family said she had fallen down the stairs.
Cameron County authorities believed Mariah had been abused, and after a 5-hour interrogation where Lucio repeatedly denied any wrong-doing, the mother confessed.
Lucio’s lawyers say the confession was coerced. They argue that new forensic evidence shows Mariah’s injuries were consistent with a fall, and that jury members did not hear from key witnesses, like Lucio’s family members, or a Child Protective Services investigator that did not find signs of child abuse among other children in the household.
“We know that Melissa’s children—Mariah’s brothers and sisters—and Mariah’s grandparents, aunts and uncles are all relieved and grateful that Melissa’s life will not be taken by the State of Texas,” said Tivon Schardl, one of Lucio’s attorneys. “And we believe the court honored Mariah’s memory because Melissa is innocent. Melissa is entitled to a new, fair trial. The people of Texas are entitled to a new, fair trial. Texans should be grateful and proud that the Court of Criminal Appeals has given Melissa’s legal team the opportunity to present the new evidence of Melissa’s innocence to the Cameron County district court.”
Five jury members who presided over the original case are calling for a new trial, according to the Associated Press.
In 2014, the original Cameron County district attorney who prosecuted Lucio, Armando Villalobos, was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison for bribery and extortion. Five years later, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion granting Lucio another trial because Lucio’s right to present a complete defense was violated. In 2021, the same court reinstated the death sentence after prosecutors successfully appealed.
“It’s just blatantly obvious this woman is innocent,” said Denisce Palacios, an activist who helped organize a vigil in Brownville with Lucio’s family on Sunday. “Melissa is an example of how the legal system works against people of color, works against people who are low income, works against women, works against Mexican Americans, and is continuing to fail us.”
“It’s enraging that a supposed criminal ‘justice’ system would do this to someone,” Palacios said. “We know that Melissa’s case probably isn’t the only case of someone who has been prosecuted and put on death row for a crime they didn’t commit.”
Photo: Legal team for Melissa Lucio