April 23, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Melissa Lucio, mother of 14 deemed unfit ‘good mother,’ faces punishment by death years after daughter’s deadly accident

Jurors at her trial now doubt her guilty verdict. Her execution is scheduled for April 27. All eyes are on Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

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Editor’s note: This latest from Mia Brett is a rush job, because it’s about a Texas woman facing execution Wednesday. She almost certainly did not commit the crime she’s sentenced for. If you want to raise your voice in support of clemency, see the info at the bottom of the piece. This is what we do at the Editorial Board. Thanks. –JS

Melissa Lucio is set to be executed, as the first Hispanic woman in Texas, on April 27 for a crime that never happened. 

It’s not just that she is innocent of her daughter’s murder. It’s that her daughter died from a tragic accident and no murder occurred. 

On February 15, 2007, Melissa’s 2-year-old daughter, Mariah, fell down a flight of stairs. Two days later she took a nap and never woke up. 

Child Protective Services found no evidence of violence or abuse. The District Attorney, who’d later serve 13 years for unrelated corruption, was seeking reelection at the time and needed a high profile win.

Without evidence or confession, prosecutors convicted Lucio of murder in July 2008 and a jury sentenced to death. Now we only have a few days left to get the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Abbot to grant her clemency and stop this execution.

Two hours after Mariah was pronounced dead, police began a six-hour interrogation. Melissa Lucio declared her innocence over 100 times, but after five hours of officers employing the controversial Reid method for interrogations, Lucio broke down and said, “I don’t know what you want me to say … I’m responsible for it … I guess I did it.” 

This interrogation technique has led to so many false confessions that a police consulting group said it would stop using it in 2017.

At the time, Lucio had 12 other children and was pregnant with twins. During police interrogation, her children were being questioned in another room. They told investigators they saw Mariah fall down a flight of stairs and appear listless before sleeping for long hours. 

Mariah also had a minor disability that likely contributed to her fall and the bruises on her body. None of this was presented at trial to explain Mariah’s injuries. Alternatively, scientifically inaccurate testimony was given by the medical examiner to support the theory that Mariah’s injuries were the result of abuse. 

Child Protective Services found no evidence of violence or abuse. The District Attorney, who’d later serve 13 years for unrelated corruption, was seeking reelection at the time and needed a high profile win.

Like many women caught in the criminal justice system (86 percent have a history of abuse), Melissa Lucio suffered child sexual abuse from the age of 6. She married at 16 to escape her family but her husband was also abusive and abandoned her and their five children. 

Her next partner was also abusive. This lifelong abuse made Lucio particularly vulnerable to police coercion and likely contributed to a demeanor of shock and numbness that made police suspect her. 

Eighty percent of women in jail are mothers. Seventy-one percent of exonerated women were convicted of crimes that never happened (though it’s rare for women accused of killing their children to get the death penalty). Lucio and others like her are criminalized when people in their care die accidentally if they’re not seen as “a good mother.”

Now five jurors from Melissa Lucio’s trial have joined the call to halt her execution. In particular, the jurors objected to the trial court allowing police to give testimony that Lucio’s demeanor showed she was guilty, but didn’t allow testimony about her history of abuse. More than 100 Texas state legislators from both parties as well as 130 Christian faith leaders also support clemency for Melissa Lucio.

(Join the fight to save Melissa Lucio and call Governor Abbott’s office, add your name to the petition, and use The Innocence Project’s social media toolkit to spread the word.) 

Mia Brett, PhD, is the Editorial Board's legal historian. She lives with her gorgeous dog, Tchotchke. You can find her @queenmab87.

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