The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday halted the scheduled Wednesday execution of Melissa Lucio, whose death sentence has drawn international outcry as more people come to doubt her guilt in her 2-year-old daughter’s death.
The court sent Lucio's case back to the Cameron County court where she was originally tried to weigh whether she is actually innocent, as well as whether the state presented false testimony at trial and hid evidence from the defense. The court's ruling came minutes before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was scheduled to vote on whether to recommend that the governor delay Lucio's execution for at least 120 days.
Questions over Mariah Alvarez’s death and Lucio’s role in it have lingered since the now 53-year-old mother was sentenced to death in 2008. In recent months, concerns about Lucio’s possible innocence — greatest among them whether Mariah’s fatal head trauma was caused by abuse or an accidental fall down the stairs — have only been amplified.
More than two-thirds of the Texas Senate and a majority of the Texas House of Representatives pleaded for the parole board and governor to halt Lucio’s execution. The lawmakers have been joined by an ever-growing list of people, including at least five of Lucio’s former jurors.
Lucio’s supporters insist there are too many unaddressed problems with the police investigation and her trial to carry out her death sentence without more investigation. At Lucio’s trial, the prosecution relied almost entirely on an ambiguous “confession” obtained after hours of police interrogation, and the trial judge barred expert testimony that might have explained why she would admit to police things she didn’t do.
In 2007, Lucio’s family called 911 after they said Mariah was found unresponsive at their Harlingen apartment, court records show. The toddler wasn’t breathing, and her body was covered with bruises and what police believed to be a bite mark. An X-ray revealed her arm had recently been broken.
The medical examiner concluded that Mariah was severely beaten and ruled her death a homicide caused by blunt force head trauma. At least one other pathologist who has examined the evidence since disagrees with the definitive finding of abuse and homicide.
Police focused on Lucio as the primary suspect, since they believed she was most often alone with the child. She and her other children told police that the toddler had fallen down the stairs at their apartment a couple of days earlier. At first, Mariah seemed fine, Lucio said, but over time became lethargic and would not eat.
For hours during a late-night interrogation on the day her child died, Lucio repeatedly insisted that she did not hurt Mariah or any of her 12 children. But after about three hours of police accusations, Lucio admitted, when prompted by police, to spanking and biting Mariah. She said she guessed she spanked Mariah out of frustration, a word police repeatedly suggested to her, though she continued to deny any involvement in a head injury.
“What do you want me to say? I’m responsible for it,” Lucio said when a Texas Ranger pushed her on the apparent bite mark on Mariah’s back.
The admissions to child abuse, which Lucio has since recanted, were the main evidence presented at trial, where jurors found she was guilty of capital murder and worthy of a death sentence. Lucio’s advocates have since condemned the trial judge for not letting the jury hear critical testimony from mental health professionals that could have explained why Lucio, a longtime victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, would falsely confess.
Despite the wide-ranging concerns with Lucio’s police interrogation and trial, appellate courts have previously upheld her conviction and sentence, even though a majority of judges on a conservative court found the case troublesome.