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Lawyers hope new evidence could halt execution of Texas woman

HOUSTON – During hours of relentless interrogation, Melissa Lucio had denied more than 100 times fatally beating her 2-year-old daughter.

But exhausted from a life of abuse and grief over the loss of her daughter Mariah, her attorneys say, the Texas woman finally gave in to investigators. “I think I did,” Lucio replied when asked if she was responsible for some of Mariah’s injuries.

Her attorneys say that statement was misinterpreted by prosecutors as a murder confession – which tainted the remainder of the investigation into Mariah’s death in 2007, with evidence collected only to prove that conclusion and helped lead to her conviction to lead for murder. They allege Mariah died from injuries when she fell down 14 steps of a steep stairway outside the family’s home in the South Texas city of Harlingen.

As her April 27 execution date nears, Lucio’s attorneys are hoping new evidence, along with growing public support — including a jury now doubting the conviction and more than half of the Texas House of Representatives — will bring the state Parole and Parole Court will convince Gov. Greg Abbott to grant a stay of execution or commute her sentence.

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“Mariah’s death was a tragedy, not murder. … It would be an absolutely devastating message if this execution went ahead. It would send a message that innocence doesn’t matter,” said Vanessa Potkin, one of Lucio’s attorneys who is with the Innocence Project.

Lucio’s attorneys say the jury never heard any forensic evidence that would have explained Mariah’s various injuries were actually caused by a fall days earlier. They also say that Lucio was not allowed to present evidence questioning the validity of her confession.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office is maintaining evidence that Mariah suffered the “absolutely worst” case of child abuse her emergency room doctor has seen in 30 years.

“Lucio still does not present evidence that is reliable and supports her acquittal,” the bureau wrote in court documents last month.

The Cameron County Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Lucio, declined to comment.

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Lucio, 53, would be Texas’ first executed Latina and the first woman since 2014. Only 17 women have been executed in the US since the Supreme Court overturned its ban on the death penalty in 1976, most recently in January 2021.

In her clemency plea, Lucio’s attorneys say that although she had used drugs, which caused her to temporarily lose custody of her children, she was a loving mother who worked to stay drug-free and provide for her family. Lucio has 14 children and was pregnant with the youngest two when Mariah died.

Lucio and her children struggled through poverty. According to the petition, they were at times homeless and dependent on food banks for their meals. Child protection services have had a presence in the family’s lives, but there have never been allegations of abuse by any of their children, Potkin said.

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Lucio was sexually abused multiple times from the age of 6 and was physically and emotionally abused by two husbands. Her lawyers say this lifelong trauma left her vulnerable to a false confession.

In the 2020 documentary The State of Texas vs. Melissa, Lucio said investigators kept pushing her to say she hurt Mariah.

“I didn’t want to admit that I caused her death because I wasn’t responsible,” Lucio said.

Her lawyers say Lucio’s sentence was disproportionate to what her husband and Mariah’s father, Robert Alvarez, received. He was sentenced to four years for harming a child by omission, though he was also responsible for Mariah’s care, Lucio’s lawyers argue.

In 2019, a three-judge panel of the US Fifth Circuit reversed Lucio’s conviction, ruling that she was stripped of “her constitutional right to present a meaningful defense.” However, the full court in 2021 said the conviction must be upheld on procedural grounds “despite the difficult issue of excluding testimony that could cast doubt on the credibility of Lucio’s confession”.

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Three jurors and a deputy in Lucio’s trial have signed affidavits expressing doubts about her conviction.

“She wasn’t mad. She was just struggling. … If we had heard passionately about the defense defending her in any way, we might have come to a different decision,” juror Johnny Galvan wrote in an affidavit.

In a letter to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and to Abbott last month, 83 members of Texas House said Lucio’s execution was “a miscarriage of justice.”

“As a conservative Republican who has long been a proponent of the death penalty in the most heinous cases … I have never seen a more disturbing case than the case of Melissa Lucio,” signing state assemblyman Jeff Leach told the letter.

Abbott may grant a one-time notice of 30 days. He may grant clemency if the parole board majority recommends it.

The board plans to vote on Lucio’s clemency petition two days before the scheduled execution, Rachel Alderete, the board’s director of support operations, said in an email. A spokeswoman for Abbott’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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Abbott has only granted clemency to one death row inmate, Thomas Whitaker, since taking office in 2015. Whitaker was convicted of planning the deadly shootings of his mother and brother. His father, who survived, led the effort to rescue Whitaker and said he would be killed again if his son were executed.

Lucio’s supporters have said that her plea for clemency is similar in that her family would be traumatized again if she were executed.

“Please allow us to reconcile Mariah’s death and commemorate her without new pain, fear and sadness. Please spare our mother’s life,” Lucio’s children wrote in a letter to Abbott and the board.

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Follow Juan A Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/04/02/lawyers-hope-new-evidence-can-stop-texas-womans-execution/ Lawyers hope new evidence could halt execution of Texas woman

Jaclyn Diaz

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