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Judge requests Melissa Lucio's murder conviction be overturned

Melissa Lucio and five of her children.
Courtesy of the Lucio Family.
Melissa Lucio and five of her children.

Since narrowly avoiding being executed, Melissa Lucio’s life has once again been in a judge’s hands.

In a 33-page agreement, the Cameron County district attorney and Lucio's attorneys said favorable evidence withheld in her 2008 murder trial could have exonerated her. The agreement sat for 16 months, waiting for a signature from a judge.

That was until last Friday when Cameron County 138th District Court Judge Arturo Nelson asked the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals to overturn Lucio’s murder conviction and death sentence. Nelson issued the order two days after being assigned to the case.

The Rio Grande Valley woman has spent the last 17 years in a Gatesville prison for a crime that her family, attorneys, the Cameron County district attorney and now the judge overseeing her trial say she did not commit.

In his order, Nelson said that Lucio “met her burden of proof, by a preponderance of the evidence, that she would not have been convicted in light of the suppressed evidence.”

Lucio was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2008 after the death of her two-year-old daughter Mariah despite evidence that the child had died from falling down the family’s apartment complex stairs.

That evidence included testimony from Lucio’s other children who saw Mariah fall down the stairs and said Lucio, concerned about her well being, cared for the two-year-old up until she died. But the testimony was withheld from Lucio's defense attorneys in violation of Brady v. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to turn over evidence that could exonerate a defendant.

The district attorney at the time, Armando Villalobos, who is now serving a federal prison sentence for bribery, pushed hard for Lucio’s conviction. Organizers for Lucio say Villalobos did this as a campaign boost while running for re-election.

Lucio was nearly executed in 2022. Just two days before her execution date in April, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay, removing her from death row indefinitely. That same court will now decide whether to overturn Lucio’s conviction and release her.

“We hope and pray the Court of Criminal Appeals will agree with the District Attorney, the defense, and Judge Nelson and our mother can come home to her family,” a statement from two of Lucio’s sons and daughter-in-law said. “It’s been 17 years that we have been without her. We love her and miss her and can’t wait to hug her.”

John Lucio, the oldest of Melissa’s twelve children, was adamant that evidence was withheld during her 2007 murder trial and proclaimed his mother's innocence around the state in the months leading up to her then-set execution date.

“That’s why we have these signs here, ‘Watch the film,’ because inside the film, there’s a bunch of evidence that was not utilized in my mother’s trial," Lucio told TPR while protesting in front of the Cameron County Courthouse in 2022.

That film is The State of Texas v. Melissa by filmmaker Sabrina Van Tassel, who documented Lucio’s arrest, trial and its effects on her family. The film, which streamed on Hulu, gave Lucio’s case nationwide exposure, aided by HBO's "Last Week Tonight" and celebrity Kim Kardashian.

The film explored, among other topics, Lucio giving a false confession after being interrogated for hours after discovering her daughter dead, her mental health after years of experiencing sexual and domestic abuse that possibly led to giving a false confession and the lack of evidence she killed Mariah.

Nelson said it was the prosecution that withheld the testimony that could have helped Lucio's defense. But Nelson, who presided over Lucio's 2008 trial, also refused to allow testimony from mental health professionals that could have explained how years of abuse contributed to Lucio giving a false confession.

In a statement explaining Nelson’s order, Lucio’s attorneys said the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals has “the ultimate power” in deciding whether to exonerate Lucio. There’s no clear indication on when the court could rule on Lucio’s case.

“This is a unique opportunity for the State of Texas to say, 'you know what, we messed up and we're letting this person out,' ” Abraham Bonowitz, director and co-founder of Death Penalty Action, told TPR.

Bonowitz has organized alongside Lucio’s family for her release for years. He hopes that the state issues an apology and possibly compensates her for the time she served.

“I think she'd be happy to walk out, just to be free,” Bonowitz said. “I correspond with her on an almost daily basis, and her joy at being alive is palpable. But so, too, is her frustration that this has taken so long.”

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Gaige Davila is the Border and Immigration Reporter for Texas Public Radio.