UPDATE: On Monday, April 25, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Melissa Lucio's execution and sent her case back to Cameron County for investigation.
Pastors and Christians in Texas are mobilizing on behalf of Melissa Lucio, a 53-year-old death row inmate whose execution is scheduled for April 27.
“We don’t think the death penalty is in line with Christian values,” said Cameron Vickrey, a staff member with Fellowship Southwest, a network of churches dedicated to social service. While she has always opposed the death penalty on compassionate grounds, Vickrey said Lucio’s case caught her attention because of new evidence demonstrating the likelihood that Lucio is innocent.
“Why would we risk putting an innocent person to death?”
This spring, after Cameron County, the southernmost county in Texas, set the date for Lucio’s execution, a number of people stepped forward to challenge the initial conviction that found Lucio guilty of murdering her two-year-old daughter, Mariah. New evidence brought forward by her lawyers, evidence which had been omitted in the original trial, led jurors to recant their positions from 2008.
“Even at the time of trial, when it seemed to me that Lucio’s defense lawyers were hardly making a case for her life, I did not want to sentence her to death. I felt pressured by my fellow jurors to vote for a death sentence, but I wish I had never done so,” Johnny Galvan Jr. wrote in an April op-ed for the Houston Chronicle.
Galvan was reluctant to go along with the rest of the jurors, but Galvan told the Intercept that another juror, knowing his Christian faith, had used Matthew 18:6, which suggests those who harm “little ones” are destined for a fate worse than death, to pressure him, the lone holdout, into voting for the extreme sentence.
Vickery said it “became clear this was a very unjust situation,” after she reviewed the clemency petition and case history.
Lucio, who has no history of assault, claims the child’s death was an accident, the result of a fall down the stairs. Paramedics were called to Lucio’s house two days after the fall when Mariah did not wake from a nap. The toddler was pronounced dead at the hospital, and an autopsy revealed severe internal injuries, citing her cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head.
Law enforcement arrested Lucio hours later, and transcripts from the interrogation show that she maintained her innocence for hours as detectives and one Texas Ranger pressed for a confession. Five hours into the interrogation, when asked repeatedly who was responsible for some of the child’s injuries, though not her death specifically, Lucio said, “What am I going to say? I’m responsible.”
The Cameron County district attorney — who was at the time running for reelection and is now in federal prison, convicted on unrelated corruption charges — called her statement a confession of abuse, but an analysis by a certified forensic interviewer at Wicklander-Zulawski filed with her clemency request reviewed the interrogation and found the police had used coercive techniques, “…including implicit and explicit threats… multiple examples of fact-feeding, revealing of evidence and modifications of her story. This created a contaminated confession which was elicited through a coercive process with a high likelihood of producing a coerced-compliant and unreliable confession.”
For Lucio, a survivor of domestic and sexual abuse, this interrogation would have been uniquely distressing, and more likely to lead to a false confession, according to a separate forensic psychology report filed with the clemency papers. Also included were orthopedic reports confirming that injuries to the child were not conclusive evidence of abuse, as expert witnesses during the trial claimed. They could have been due to an accident like the one Lucio described.
After the Texas Tribune published a story about Lucio’s case, noting that she would be the first Latina executed in the state, Jesse Rincones, executive director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas, took notice. The more he read, and the more he came to believe that Lucio could be innocent, the more he felt compelled to act, submitting an op-ed to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in Lubbock, Texas, arguing for clemency.
Rincones told Sojourners he had never had a strong opinion on the death penalty, but reading how many people had been ultimately exonerated after a false confession, inadequate defense, or faulty evidence, changed his opinion. Since 1973, 187 people sentenced to death have been later exonerated and released. Those numbers alone make capital punishment untenable, Rincones said.
“As believers, we believe in the fallen nature of mankind, and we’re broken. We break the things that we touch, whether it’s relationships or systems,” he said. “I am now anti-death penalty.”
He also signed a letter with 130 faith leaders from Baptist, Catholic, non-denominational, womanist, Episcopal, Jewish, Methodist, and Lutheran congregations across Texas pleading Lucio’s case to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
“Our faith traditions also compel us to stand with those who have been silenced and to care for the most vulnerable people in our society—people like Melissa Lucio and her family,” the letter reads, remarking on how Lucio’s statements during the interrogation could not be considered independent of her personal history. “Melissa herself was a victim of abuse, however, and her entire life was marked by poverty, addiction, and domestic violence. Yet the jury never heard how her history of trauma and abuse shaped her reactions immediately following her daughter’s death.”
A bipartisan letter from nearly 90 Texas legislators — over half the state’s House of Representatives — accompanied the pastors’ letter, and seven of those lawmakers visited Lucio to pray with her inside the prison in Gatesville.
A devout Catholic, Lucio also wrote a letter to Pope Francis asking for his prayers. In the letter she mentions her spiritual advisor, who will be with her on Wednesday, should her execution proceed. “Deacon Ronnie, has not only shown me the true love of Christ, but he has nurtured my sorrows, and shown me the way to my salvation. Even now in the darkest of times, he stands with me, and guides me Your Holiness.”
In the letter, Lucio maintains her innocence in Mariah’s death, and acknowledges that she was not a perfect mother. “My children are everything to me, but I also knew that my mistakes and wrong choices had caused all of my children a great deal of pain and hurt. I felt the weight of that guilt bearing down on me, to the point where I felt no hope at all. It is there that the Lord our God found me. My heart & spirit broken in so many pieces,” she wrote.
As Vickrey began looking for ways to advocate for Lucio, she found it frustrating how few state offices were willing to tell her who and where to call, write, or email.
Ultimately, through the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, she leaned that intervention could come from a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stay of execution or sentence revesal, Abbott granting clemency, or Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz withdrawing the execution date.
If no one intervenes beforehand, the advocacy group explained, the Board of Pardons and Paroles could make a nonbinding recommendation for clemency to the governor. They usually do so two days before the execution date — in this case, Monday, April 25. The governor, who can himself grant a one time, 30-day stay of execution at any time, must decide whether to follow the board’s recommendation.
While Lucio’s case has drawn considerable celebrity and bipartisan attention, clemency in Texas is extremely rare. The parole board is appointed by Abbott, and has only recommended clemency twice during his time in office. Abbott has only approved it once, less than an hour before the execution of Thomas Whitaker was set to take place in February 2018.