On the evening of February 15, 2007, a team of five police officers from Cameron County, Texas, begins the interrogation of a Mexican-American mother whom they suspect of having murdered her two-year-old child.
Melissa Lucio was in a vulnerable state. She was pregnant with twins and in shock and grief. Just two hours earlier, his youngest daughter, Mariah, had been pronounced dead after losing consciousness.
Officers did not let the suspect’s vulnerabilities get in the way of the inquisition. For nearly six hours, extending late into the night, they applied the notorious “Reid Technique” to Lucio – a controversial interrogation method that has led to numerous wrongful convictions in the United States.
As trained to do as part of the system, the officers put their faces inches from Lucio’s, shouting at her that she “needed to know” what had happened to her child. They had “ample evidence” that she was responsible for the death, they said, forcing her to see photographs of the girl’s lifeless body.
Then, as the Reid method dictates, they abruptly changed their tone. They kindly reassured her that she could “put it aside” if only she confessed to causing the toddler’s death.
Lucio insisted over 100 times that night that she was innocent. But after more than five hours of aggressive “maximizing” and “minimizing,” as the technique is known, it reached breaking point.
She began to repeat the phrases that the investigators had actually taught her to say.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” she told them. “I’m responsible for it…I guess I did.”
This forced confession was the main evidence presented at Lucio’s subsequent trial. It was critical to the jury’s guilty verdict and subsequent death sentence.
Next Wednesday, pending a last-minute reprieve, Lucio, 52, will be executed for a crime that significant evidence suggests she did not commit. Not only that, but significant evidence also suggests that the crime for which she will be tied to a stretcher and injected with deadly drugs never happened in the first place.
A growing body of information — most of which was never heard at trial, some of which has been actively suppressed by prosecutors — points to a very different conclusion. Mariah was not beaten to death by her mother; she died of internal injuries following an accidental fall.
As the execution date of April 27 approaches, fear that an innocent woman is about to be sent to the death chamber has reached fever pitch. Strange bedfellows gathered to demand that the execution be delayed in an eruption of concern that has rarely been seen with such intensity in Texas.
“There are so many layers of injustice here that it has drawn support from unlikely allies. People who may be very strong believers in the death penalty are speaking out because they are troubled that this case has gone terribly wrong,” said Sandra Babcock, a member of Lucio’s defense team and a professor at Cornell Law School.
Among those seeking a stay of execution are a bipartisan group of 103 members of the Texas Legislature — including 32 Republican House members and eight Republican state senators. It is an extraordinary show of unity between the parties for such a toxicly divided assembly.
Hundreds of religious organizations, as well as women’s and domestic violence advocacy groups, have joined celebrities such as Kim Kardashian in imploring Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the state’s Pardons Board to intervene. . A documentary about the case, The State of Texas v Melissa, was released in 2020.
five of the jurors who sentenced Lucio also asked for a reprieve. They argue that if they had known at the time what has since emerged, the outcome would have been different.
The many legal missteps behind Lucio’s death sentence are exposed in a 266-page petition released this week calling for a postponement of the execution and a new trial. The prisoner’s attorneys begin by exploring the wealth of evidence that Mariah died by accident rather than in a brutal murder.
While Lucio was being questioned by Cameron County detectives, in a separate room from the police station, some of her other children (she had nine at the time) were also being questioned. They told investigators that their mother had never been abusive or violent in any way.
The children also said that two days before Mariah died, they saw their brother accidentally fall down a steep staircase outside the house they were renting. Lucio, who had been busy getting the kids ready for school, found the girl at the bottom of the stairs crying.
Over the next 48 hours, family witnesses said Mariah showed signs of distress, including sleeping long hours and being listless. None of this evidence, which could support the diagnosis of an internal brain injury caused by the fall, was presented at trial.
The jury also did not hear that Mariah had a medical history of difficulty walking that led to previous documented falls.
Two days after falling down the stairs, Mariah stopped breathing and became unresponsive. Lucio dialed 911; paramedics attempted to revive the child but she died before reaching hospital.
Babcock told the Guardian that a series of errors were made by police, the prosecutor and expert witnesses that all stemmed from the same source: an initial misinterpretation of the suspect’s state of mind. Lucio had been raised in an extremely poor and troubled family in Lubbock, Texas, in which she had been sexually abused from the age of six and by age 16 she had become a child bride for the purpose of escape abuse.
Long years of domestic violence followed. Her cumulative experiences – never told to the jury – left her uniquely vulnerable to making a false confession during coercive questioning.
It also helped explain the puzzlement of first responders when they showed up at her home after responding to the 911 call. They found her slumped on the floor, where she showed no signs of emotion or tears.
Babcock said it was the classic posture of a victim of domestic violence triggered by a traumatic event. “She was numb, in shock, she was dissociating.”
But to police and other first responders, she came across as a callous, cold-hearted person who seemed unmoved by the death of her child. “They saw a woman who didn’t fit their role model of a grieving mother, and they immediately concluded that she was a woman with something to hide.”
At trial, one of the Texas rangers who was first on the scene told the jury he found Lucio with his head down, without eye contact and showing no apparent concern about Mariah. “Just then I knew she had done something. It’s one of the most common clues – someone with slumped shoulders forward: they’re hiding the truth,” he said.
This testimony was false. Several scientific studies have shown that you cannot infer a suspect’s guilt or innocence from their body language or facial mannerisms.
The medical examiner who performed the autopsy, Dr. Norma Farley, showed a similar willingness to prejudge Lucio’s guilt. In his testimony, Farley made several critical statements that have proven to be scientifically inaccurate.
She said the bruises on Mariah’s body must have been caused by a “murderous” beating. Fake. A medical review of autopsy reports criticized the medical examiner for failing to detect clear signs that the child suffered from a blood clotting disorder which would have produced extensive bruising all over his body.
Farley said Mariah’s injuries must have been inflicted within 24 hours of her death – an important detail as he ruled out falling down the stairs two days before as the cause of death. It was wrong too. A medical expert who reviewed the evidence pointed out that it is well established that the physical manifestations of an injury can take several days to appear.
Farley also told the jury that at least two bite marks were found on Mariah’s back and they were caused by an adult’s teeth suggesting a brutal and painful attack. Fake. Bite mark analysis has been completely discredited.
Numerous scientific studies have shown that there is no way to positively identify a wound on a body as a bite. There is also no way to identify from the wound who might have caused the abrasion.
Dr Janice Ophoven, the pediatric medical examiner who reviewed Lucio’s documents, concluded: “The investigation into Mariah’s death appears to have been significantly compromised…and creates a risk of [a] serious miscarriage of justice in this case.
This week, Lucio was placed on “execution watch” – a 24-hour monitoring system that all death row inmates are subjected to in Texas during the last seven days before their execution. Prison authorities say it is to avoid the risk of suicide or self-harm, but Babcock told the Guardian Lucio found the arrangement “very upsetting”.
“She finds the thought of being watched 24/7 extremely stressful, and each passing day brings a day closer to her possible execution. The terror is real.
The Austin, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and State Pardon Board are considering Lucio’s plea. A stay of execution is possible, given the many glaring flaws in how she was placed on death row.
Lucio is a woman of deep faith who hopes and prays for her life to be spared, Babcock said. But she also knows there is no certainty – not in the death penalty and especially not when a state as relentless as Texas is about to take her life.
“It’s cruelty to alternate between hope and despair,” Babcock said. “It’s torture, and each day is more torturing than the last.”