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With 1 month until execution, Melissa Lucio seeks clemency from death row

Melissa Lucio stands in the visitation area of a Texas federal prison.
Courtesy Photo
Melissa Lucio stands in the visitation area of a Texas federal prison.

Attorneys for Melissa Lucio filed for clemency on Tuesday, just a month before her execution date on April 27.

Her attorneys are seeking either a lesser charge, to remove Lucio from death row or a 120-day reprieve from her execution. The time would give attorneys time to seek a new trial. For that trial, the clemency application has new forensic evidence that proves Lucio’s innocence, her attorneys say. A hearing could help prove those claims.

“Although it’s unusual for the board to grant a hearing, it is not unprecedented,” Sandra Babcock, Cornell University law professor and one of Lucio’s attorneys said. “And this is exactly the kind of case with the voluminous evidence that the courts have never before considered that really cries out for process.”

Lucio was convicted of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah, in 2008, in a widely covered Cameron County trial. Lucio and her family have vehemently denied the capital murder conviction. Lucio has unsuccessfully appealed the conviction since she was sentenced to death row, making her the only Latina in the state’s history to receive this sentence.

Melissa Lucio and her daughters Mariah and Adriana.
Courtesy photo.
Melissa Lucio and her daughters Mariah and Adriana.

But her attorneys say she’s innocent, and that Lucio confessed to the murder only after police coercion. Bruising on Mariah’s body led state medical examiner Norma Jean Farley in 2007 to declare that Mariah had died from abuse.

According to a medical expert, however, Mariah had a rare blood-clotting disorder that caused the bruising.

Dr. Michael Laposata, Chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, said Mariah had signs of Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC). This disorder causes extensive bruising following head trauma. Two days before Mariah died, Melissa Lucio said she had fallen down a 14-step flight of stairs outside of their Harlingen apartment.

“In patients with DIC, routine handling at home or in a hospital setting can cause significant bruising,” Laposata wrote in the clemency application. “It is not possible to tell the difference between a bruise from DIC and a bruise from abuse.”

All of Lucio’s appeals have been unsuccessful. Her attorneys hope that by filing more than two weeks before the clemency deadline of 21 days before execution, it will give enough time for the board to grant their decision. Those decisions usually come up to two days before an execution date.

“We had precious little time to put together this clemency petition because the (Cameron County District Attorney) asked the court to set an execution date and did that without giving the defense any notice whatsoever,” Babcock said. “The team did everything possible to bring together the experts necessary, to provide the board with as much time as possible.”

Lucio’s attorneys also say in their clemency application that Lucio’s confession was false, coerced after five hours of interrogation while she was pregnant with twins. Five jurors serving on Lucio’s trial wrote in the clemency application that they support her clemency, noting that they were concerned with evidence that was left out of the trial.

That evidence includes Lucio’s psychological analysis, noting her history of being abused and suffering from PTSD, and testimony from Lucio’s other children who saw Mariah fall down the stairs.

The case has received significant attention after the documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” was released two years ago. Lucio’s supporters often share the phrase “Watch the film” when speaking on her behalf.

Protestors outside the Cameron County Courthouse advocate to overturn Melissa Lucio's death sentence.
Gaige Davila
Texas Public Radio
Protestors outside the Cameron County Courthouse on February 11 advocate to overturn Melissa Lucio's death sentence.

Lucio’s family, led by her oldest son, John, have been protesting her death sentence since Cameron County DA Luis Saenz issued a warrant for her execution this past January. The Lucios and their friends have traveled across the state holding demonstrations on Melissa’s behalf.

Lucio’s attorneys filed to withdraw Lucio’s execution date in February. The Cameron County DA’s office did not respond to TPR’s request for comment.

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Gaige Davila is a journalist based in the Rio Grande Valley. He was TPR's Border and Immigration Reporter from 2021-2024.