State district judge recommends overturning Melissa Lucio’s death sentence

Melissa Lucio was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of her her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah Alvarez. (Courtesy Of Melissa Lucio'S Attorneys, Courtesy Of Melissa Lucio'S Attorneys)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Recommended Videos

A district judge who previously presided over a woman’s capital murder case recommended last week that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturn Melissa Lucio's 2008 conviction after a district attorney’s office admitted that prosecutors withheld evidence from her defense.

Decades after a jury sentenced Lucio to death for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter, the Cameron County district attorney and Lucio’s legal team cosigned court filings that found key evidence, which included interviews with Lucio’s other children, was suppressed by prosecutors at the time of the case.

For more than 15 years Lucio has lived in the Patrick O'Daniel Unit, where women on death row are housed, since she was charged in the death of her daughter, Mariah Alvarez, who died in the hospital after she was found unresponsive in the bedroom where she had been sleeping. Bruises, scratches and what seemed to be a bite mark on her body led police investigators to believe Mariah was killed. Her death was later determined to be caused by blunt-force head injury.

The prosecutors’ case centered around an ambiguous “confession,” in which police obtained after hours of interrogation, that Lucio had abused her daughter. Lucio has since recanted that admission.

Five of Lucio’s children who were interviewed immediately after the young girl’s death told a Child Protective Services investigator that their mother was not abusive toward them or Mariah, according to court filings. One of her children told the investigator that they witnessed Mariah fall down the flight of stairs in their Harlingen apartment and corroborated Lucio’s account of her daughter’s injuries and declining health in the days after the incident.

But prosecutors did not share those interviews in full with the defense during the trial, which Lucio’s lawyers and the Cameron County district attorney now say was a violation of her constitutional due process rights. The two parties said in a statement earlier this month that the withholding of evidence entitles Lucio to relief from her death sentence.

Two years ago, a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz to halt Lucio’s execution during a legislative hearing. Saenz, who was not in office when Lucio was convicted, initially stated he would not intervene, but eventually said he would withdraw a request for an execution date if the criminal appeals court did not act.

“I'm so glad that we did what we did two years ago to step up and — let's not mince words — to stop the state from murdering Melissa Lucio,” Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican who has advocated for Lucio, told The Texas Tribune.

More than half of the Texas House asked the state’s parole board to stop the execution in 2022 due to the substantive doubts surrounding her case.

Weeks after the 2022 hearing, the Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution two days before it was scheduled. The court sent Lucio's case back to the Cameron County court to consider several questions.

The following year, Saenz and Vanessa Potkin, Lucio’s lawyer, together submitted findings of fact and conclusions of law to the trial court, providing proof prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense.

On Friday, State District Judge Arturo Nelson signed the court filings, recommending the Court of Criminal Appeals overturn Lucio’s conviction and death sentence.

Nelson had previously presided over Lucio’s case. During the 2008 trial, Nelson refused to allow a social worker and psychologist to testify for Lucio’s innocence defense at trial. Her advocates argued that the absence of this crucial testimony could explain why Lucio might falsely confess as a longtime victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Leach said the criminal justice system failed Lucio, from the initial interrogation to the prosecution. He added there is still work that needs to be done to make this right as long as Lucio is on death row.

Jordan Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said it's “exceptionally rare” for the prosecution and defense to agree on findings of fact that prosecutorial misconduct occurred during a trial.

Lucio’s case, which Steiker described as a combination of bad forensic evidence and the withholding of exculpatory evidence, is one of those rare examples of a district attorney’s office acknowledging an error in court.

When the defense doesn’t have access to the same evidence as prosecutors, there isn’t a level playing field, Steiker said. This is known as a “Brady violation.”

It’s not clear when the Court of Criminal Appeals will consider the state district judge’s recommendation. Lucio does not have a scheduled execution date, but remains incarcerated. Texas has executed one person in 2024.

“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,” several of Lucio’s children said in the statement on Monday. “It’s been 17 years that we have been without her. We love her and miss her and can’t wait to hug her.”

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Tickets are on sale now for the 2024 Texas Tribune Festival, happening in downtown Austin Sept. 5-7. Get your TribFest tickets before May 1 and save big!

Recommended Videos