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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday halted the scheduled Wednesday execution of Melissa Lucio, whose death sentence has drawn international outcry as more people come to doubt her guilt in her 2-year-old daughter’s death.
The court sent Lucio's case back to the Cameron County court where she was originally tried to weigh whether she is actually innocent, as well as whether the state presented false testimony at trial and hid evidence from the defense. The court's ruling came minutes before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was scheduled to vote on whether to recommend that the governor delay Lucio's execution for at least 120 days. The board later said that it would no longer make a recommendation because of the court's ruling.
In a phone call with state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican who has advocated for her, Lucio was overcome with emotion when Leach told her she had been granted a stay.
"Are you serious?" she asked, laughing through tears. "That is wonderful. ... Oh thank you, God."
In a statement provided by her attorneys, Lucio said she was thankful for those who spoke out for her and was "grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in my heart today and always. I am grateful to have more days to be a mother to my children and a grandmother to my grandchildren."
Questions over Mariah Alvarez’s death and Lucio’s role in it have lingered since the now-53-year-old mother was sentenced to death in 2008. In recent months, concerns about Lucio’s possible innocence — greatest among them whether Mariah’s fatal head trauma was caused by abuse or an accidental fall down the stairs — have only been amplified.
More than two-thirds of the Texas Senate and a majority of the Texas House of Representatives pleaded for the parole board and governor to halt Lucio’s execution. The lawmakers have been joined by an ever-growing list of people, including at least five of Lucio’s former jurors.
Lucio’s supporters insist there are too many unaddressed problems with the police investigation and her trial to carry out her death sentence without more investigation. At Lucio’s trial, the prosecution relied almost entirely on an ambiguous “confession” obtained after hours of police interrogation, and the trial judge barred expert testimony that might have explained why she would admit to police things she didn’t do.
In 2007, Lucio’s family called 911 after they said Mariah was found unresponsive at their Harlingen apartment, court records show. The toddler wasn’t breathing, and her body was covered with bruises and what police believed to be a bite mark. An X-ray revealed her arm had recently been broken.
The medical examiner concluded that Mariah was severely beaten and ruled her death a homicide caused by blunt force head trauma. At least one other pathologist who has examined the evidence since disagrees with the definitive finding of abuse and homicide.
Police focused on Lucio as the primary suspect since they believed she was most often alone with the child. She and her other children told police that the toddler had fallen down the stairs at their apartment a couple of days earlier. At first, Mariah seemed fine, Lucio said, but over time she became lethargic and would not eat.
For hours during a late-night interrogation on the day her child died, Lucio repeatedly insisted that she did not hurt Mariah or any of her 12 children. But after about three hours of police accusations, Lucio admitted, when prompted by police, to spanking and biting Mariah. She said she guessed she spanked Mariah out of frustration, a word police repeatedly suggested to her, though she continued to deny any involvement in a head injury.
“What do you want me to say? I’m responsible for it,” Lucio said when a Texas Ranger pushed her on the apparent bite mark on Mariah’s back.
The admissions to child abuse, which Lucio has since recanted, were the main evidence presented at trial, where jurors found she was guilty of capital murder and worthy of a death sentence. Lucio’s advocates have since condemned the trial judge for not letting the jury hear critical testimony from mental health professionals that could have explained why Lucio, a longtime victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, would falsely confess.
Texas' highest criminal court sent Lucio's case back to her trial court to weigh multiple questions. Lucio's latest appeal argued false evidence from the state — largely that jurors heard a Texas Ranger testify he could tell by Lucio's demeanor in her interrogation that she was guilty, and the medical examiner's definitive conclusions that Mariah's injuries were from child abuse — swayed the jury to wrongly convict Lucio. Her attorneys also argue new scientific evidence has debunked claims made at trial that definitively established the marks on Mariah's back were from a bite. They said science also now shows Lucio would be very likely to falsely confess.
Finally, the appeal argued the prosecution hid potentially helpful evidence, including interviews of Lucio's older children after Mariah's death that corroborated Lucio's statement that Mariah fell down the stairs.
"It would have shocked the public’s conscience for Melissa to be put to death based on false and incomplete medical evidence for a crime that never even happened," Vanessa Potkin, Lucio's lawyer with The Innocence Project, said in a statement after Monday's ruling.
Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, who was not in office when Lucio was convicted, said Monday he welcomed "the opportunity to prosecute this case in the courtroom: where witnesses testify under oath, where witnesses may be cross-examined, where evidence is governed by the rules of evidence and criminal procedure, and where the court rules pursuant to the rule of law. That is our criminal jurisprudence system, and it is working."
Earlier in the day, Lucio's attorneys noted they were continuing their previous efforts to have Saenz taken off the case, as one of his assistant district attorneys was the lead defense attorney for Lucio at trial. It will likely be months or years before the trial court decides if the new evidence presented by Lucio's attorneys should warrant her new trial. If so, that recommendation would go again to the Court of Criminal Appeals to either accept or reject.
Despite the wide-ranging concerns with Lucio’s police interrogation and trial, appellate courts have previously upheld her conviction and sentence, even though a majority of judges on a conservative court found the case troublesome. After Monday's ruling, Lucio's oldest son's voice cracked with emotion as he told a reporter on the phone that he couldn't talk because he was about to be with his mother in the prison. Lucio's lawyers said the family was deeply relieved. Her children had also asked the parole board to spare her life.
"We know that Melissa’s children — Mariah’s brothers and sisters — and Mariah’s grandparents, aunts and uncles are all relieved and grateful that Melissa’s life will not be taken by the State of Texas," Lucio's attorney Tivon Schardl said in a statement. "And we believe the court honored Mariah’s memory because Melissa is innocent."