Wrongful Conviction? | Melissa Lucio

Melissa Lucio was convicted of murdering her 2 y/o daughter Mariah in 2007.  Melissa has been on death row since that time.  She was due to be executed on April 27 but has been granted a stay of execution.  This is the story of Melissa and Mariah.

Melissa was born in Lubbock Texas on June 18, 1969.  Melissa’s father died when she was an infant.  When Melissa was 3 or 4, her family moved to Rio Grande Valley, where her mother had grown up.

There is a lot of info on Melissa that comes from the Innocence Project – we will mention that program a lot in this episode.  If you aren’t familiar with it, this info is from their website:

The Innocence Project works to free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone.

Anyway, according to the Innocence Project, Melissa suffered sexual and physical abuse from age 6.  

Melissa got married at age 16 and had five children with a man named Guadalupe Lucio.  Melissa has publicly said that Guadalupe was abusive and suffered with addiction issues.  She became trapped and developed addiction issues herself.  Guadalupe eventually abandoned Melissa and the five kids. 

She met a man named Robert Alvarez and she had nine more children.  Just to note, some reports say she had 13 children, but the Innocence Project says she had 14.  I think 14 is the more likely number.  Robert was also abusive towards Melissa and the children.  He repeatedly raped her and threatened to kill her.

Melissa and Robert had been investigated by CPS over the years.  There were allegations of child neglect and Melissa apparently left the teenage kids in charge of the younger ones for long periods of time.  

In 2004, Melissa gave birth to Mariah Alvarez in September.  Mariah was Melissa’s 12th child.  At the time of the birth, Melissa was found to be addicted to cocaine and her children were all removed from her care.  Three older children went to live with their father, while the others were placed in foster care.  Melissa did end up regaining custody of the ones in foster care by 2006.

Melissa and her family lived a tough life. 

The family lived in “extreme poverty,” her lawyer Sandra Babcock told BBC.

“Their electric service was cut, they moved some 26 times in a five-year period. For a time, the only access they had to water was through their neighbours’ houses or from the parish.”

At one point, Melissa and Robert lived with the children that they had custody of in a 2 bedroom apartment.  Some articles say that she had custody of all 12 kids at this time and that she was also pregnant with twins.  Either way, it was a lot of people in a tiny space.  

Mariah allegedly became injured during one of the family’s many house moves.  The family moved into the 2 bed apartment that we just mentioned, which was on the second floor of the building.  

Melissa later told police that when she realised that Mariah was no longer inside the unit, she left to look for her and found her crying by the staircase, with a bit of blood on her lower teeth.  I feel like the likely insinuated scenario here is that Mariah fell down at least one flight of stairs.

After finding no other injuries, Melissa said she had continued on with her day.

Two days later, it was February 17, 2007.  Police were called to the apartment after Mariah was found unresponsive.  Melissa and Robert said that Mariah had fallen asleep on their bed and had never woken up.  After she was pronounced dead, an autopsy was conducted.  The results showed that she had extensive bruising, bite marks on her back, patches of hair that had been pulled out, and a broken arm.  Melissa explained that she thought Mariah had fallen down the stairs a few days earlier and that would explain most of the injuries.  

However, further investigation showed the arm break was weeks old – around two to seven weeks before her death.  She also had a head injury and bruising of the kidneys, lungs and spinal cord.

One source, Abuse Angels, says that Mariah’s head injury likely occurred around 24 hours before her death.   That source also says she suffered “multiple contusions” to her head area and that “blunt force head trauma . . . basically means, beat about the head with something-an object, a hand, a fist, or slammed.”

After Mariah’s death, Melissa was taken in for questioning.  At first, she was questioned by Texas Rangers for over seven hours, with no legal representation. She was also not offered food or water.

Melissa denied more than 100 times during questioning that she ever abused or killed Mariah.  She did admit to spanking her. 

This info comes from court documents about the case:

Escalon testified that appellant began to “open up” with him after about 20 minutes of questioning. Appellant’s recorded statement reflects that she told Escalon that she, and only she, had been “spanking” or “hitting” Mariah since sometime in December 2006. Appellant stated that Alvarez never “hit” or “spanked” Mariah and that Alvarez was unaware of most of the bruises on Mariah’s body. Appellant also stated that none of the other children “beat” Mariah and that no one except appellant “beat” Mariah. Appellant also stated that Mariah had been in her care for at least the previous three days. The jury also saw appellant on the videotape demonstrate with a doll how she abused and “spanked” Mariah.

Appellant also stated that she would “hit” Mariah when appellant got mad. Appellant also described how she pinched Mariah’s vagina and how she would sometimes grab and squeeze Mariah’s arm. Appellant described how she bit Mariah twice on the back at different times about two weeks before Mariah’s death. Appellant said that on one occasion she bit Mariah on the back for no reason while she was combing Mariah’s hair. Appellant said, “I just did it.” Appellant also stated that she would “spank” Mariah several times “day after day.”

Appellant stated that Mariah was “sick” on the day that she died, but that she was afraid to take Mariah to the doctor because of all the bruises on her. Appellant also stated that Mariah would not eat and that her breathing was heavy. Appellant said that Mariah slept all day on February 17, 2007, and that she would lock her teeth together when appellant would try to feed her. This was consistent with “blunt force head trauma” symptoms that Farley described.

Texas Ranger Victor Escalon said  “Right now, it looks like you’re a cold-blooded killer. Now, are you a cold-blooded killer or were you a frustrated mother who just took it out on her?” He continued by telling her “we already know what happened”. After she had been interrogated for several hours, Melissa broke down and said “I guess I did it. I’m responsible.”

One of Melissa’s sons was also questioned by law enforcement after Mariah’s death.  In a video, a female officer asks the boy: “Did you see your sister fall down the stairs or did somebody tell you that she fell?” The boy then responded: “No, I saw her fall.

An article from the Guardian also gives some more insight into the interrogation techniques used by Law Enforcement in this case.  

Over almost six hours, stretching late into the night, they applied to Lucio the notorious “Reid Technique” – a controversial interrogation method that has led to numerous wrongful convictions in the US.

As trained to do under the system, the officers put their faces within inches of Lucio’s, screaming at her that she “had to know” what had happened to her child. They had “lots of evidence” that she was to blame for the death, they said, forcing her to view photographs of the girl’s lifeless body.

Then, as the Reid method dictates, they abruptly switched tone. They gently reassured her that she could “put this to rest” if she would only confess to having caused the toddler’s death.

Lucio insisted over 100 times that night that she was innocent. But after more than five hours of aggressive “maximization” and “minimization”, as the technique is known, she reached break point.

She began to repeat the phrases that the investigators had effectively coached her to say.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” she told them. “I’m responsible for it … I guess I did it.”

Melissa went to trial for Mariah’s murder very quickly.  The prosecuting District Attorney was  Armando Villalobos.  He was seeking re-election at the time of the trial.

Villalobos played Melissa’s statements in court and told the jury that they were her confessions.  

A pathologist, Dr. Norma J. Farley, testified that Mariah’s autopsy indicated that she did not die from falling down stairs, and instead her injuries were consistent with a death from blunt-force trauma. Additionally, court documents state that the emergency room physician said he had not seen a case of child abuse worse than Mariah’s.

The main argument from Melissa’s defense was that Mariah’s injuries were from falling down the stairs.  They also argued that Melissa’s psychological functioning contributed to her conflicting reports given to authorities. 

There is surprisingly little info that is actually still available about the trial proceedings for this case.  Melissa was found guilty of capital murder and later sentenced to death in 2008.

At the time of her sentencing, Melissa was pregnant with twins.  She delivered them in jail and they were placed up for adoption.

Some sources say that Melissa appealed the sentencing in 2011.  The basis of the appeal was that Melissa was unable to present a complete defense because some of the defense’s witnesses were rejected.  The appeal outlined 14 points of error in the trial.  Despite this, the 2011 appeal was denied.

In 2019, a three-judge panel of the Federal Appeals Court overturned the sentence because of the trial court’s interference in Melissa’s right to present a defense.   Melissa’s attorneys hoped new witnesses that they wanted to call could shed light on Melissa’s character as a “battered woman” who “takes blame for everything that goes on in the family.” 

Forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas Young, the former chief medical examiner in Kansas City, Missouri, reviewed the case at the request of Melissa’s attorney. He concluded that Dr. Farley appeared to have jumped to wrong conclusions. In the similar case of Manuel Velez, a man who was initially convicted for murdering a one-year-old baby and whose death sentence was overturned after further investigation, Dr. Farley’s conclusions had also been contradicted by other medical experts.

Despite all this, the appeal decision was subsequently overturned and Melissa remained on death row.

That wasn’t the end of the appeals process for Melissa though.  It kept going.

In February 2021, a larger group of judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit split in February 2021 and voted narrowly—10 to 7—to uphold her execution.

In August 2021, an amicus brief was filed on Melissa’s behalf by a group consisting of legal scholars, experts on violence against women, and representatives from 16 organizations that fight violence against women. 

If you’re wondering what an amicus brief is:

An amicus curiae is an individual or organization who is not a party to a legal case, but who is permitted to assist a court by offering information, expertise, or insight that has a bearing on the issues in the case. The decision on whether to consider an amicus brief lies within the discretion of the court.

The brief states that Melissa’s strange behavior during interrogation was because of prior trauma as a survivor of abuse. They also argued that a judge’s order to exclude expert testimony on the effects of trauma had “deprived Melissa of the only means she had of explaining that, notwithstanding her demeanor and self-incriminating statements, she was innocent of her daughter’s murder.”

Despite all of this, none of the appeals were successful.  In January 2022, Cameron County Officials set the date for Melissa’s execution as April 27, 2022.

Just to note – Melissa is the first Hispanic woman to be sent to Death Row and if her execution had gone ahead, she would have been the first Hispanic woman executed in Texas.

After her execution date was scheduled, Melissa petitioned for clemency.  

Governor Greg Abbott could grant clemency if the majority of the Board of Pardons and Paroles supported it. The parole board was scheduled to vote on Melissa’s clemency petition two days before the execution. 

In a March 2022 letter to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and Abbott, eighty-three members of the Texas House of Representatives, including both Democrats and Republicans, signed a letter stating that executing Melissa would be “a miscarriage of justice.

In April 2022, a juror on the trial, Johnny Galvan Jr., wrote in The Houston Chronicle that he had wrongly succumbed to peer pressure during deliberations and had changed his vote from a life sentence to the death penalty.

In 2008, I served on the jury that sent Melissa Lucio to death row for the alleged murder of her 2-year-old daughter. 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.

At the trial, prosecutors argued Lucio had been physically abusive toward her daughter, Mariah — the youngest of her 12 children. They noted the bruises and other injuries found on her body when Mariah was brought to the hospital and later declared dead. The majority of their prosecution, however, rested on Lucio’s confession, the result of five hours of interrogation.

But there were so many other details that went unmentioned. It wasn’t until after the trial was over that troubling information was brought to light.

On April 15, Melissa’s attorneys filed a habeas petition with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seeking a stay of her execution and arguing that she deserves a new trial because she is innocent and the State relied on false evidence,and hid favorable evidence, to convict her.  The petition was 242 pages and I will link it on the blog if you want to read it.

This info about the petition is from the Innocence Project

The filing represents the first time the courts will have the opportunity to consider the new scientific and expert evidence showing that Melissa’s conviction was based on an unreliable, coerced “confession” and unscientific false evidence that misled the jury. Melissa has been condemned to die for the accidental death of her daughter, Mariah.

“If the jury had heard evidence about the coercive tactics used in Melissa’s interrogation and the medical evidence showing that Mariah’s cause of death was consistent with an accident, they would have found there was no murder, Melissa would have been acquitted, and she would be preparing for Easter mass with her children, not facing execution. She deserves a new trial,” said Vanessa Potkin, Director of Special Litigation at the Innocence Project and one of Melissa’s attorneys.

The petition also details how the police investigation and prosecution were infected by gender bias. “Police targeted Melissa because she did not fit their image of how a grieving mother should behave. They used interrogation tactics that replicated the dynamics of domestic violence, that told her she had no choice but to acquiesce to their insistence that she take responsibility for Mariah’s injuries. New linguistic analysis shows that while the police treated Melissa as a suspect, they treated her partner like an innocent victim—even though he was also Mariah’s caretaker, and had a history of intra-familial violence. He is now a free man,” said Professor Sandra Babcock, Director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, and one of Ms. Lucio’s attorneys.

“We know that corruption ran deep in the District Attorney’s Office under Armando Villalobos. We owe it to Mariah and her siblings to make sure a new panel of twelve jurors hears all the evidence of their mother’s innocence,” said Tivon Schardl, Capital Habeas Unit Chief of the Federal Defender for the Western District of Texas and one of Melissa’s attorneys.

The Mexican Ambassador to the United States, Esteban Moctezuma, announced on April 22 that he sent a letter to Governor Abbott asking him to grant executive clemency to Lucio, as “Mexico has historically manifested an unwavering commitment in its opposition to the death penalty..

On Monday April 25, Melissa’s execution was halted by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.  This means that her execution has been delayed, so that it can be decided if her case should go to trial again.

The appeals court ordered Melissa’s trial court to review four of the nine claims she raised in her application for a writ of habeas corpus, which demands a public official show a valid reason for a person’s detention.

A trial court-level judge will review her request and prosecutors’ response before making a recommendation to the state appeals court, which will decide whether she gets a new trial. It’s not clear how long the process will take.

We will now outline the four main claims that Melissa and her defense team are arguing. A lot of this information comes from CNN.

Claim 1: No juror would have convicted Lucio without the state’s false testimony

This claim is based on the assumption that Melissa was convicted based on false testimony given by witnesses and law enforcement.  

At the time of her death, Mariah’s body was covered in bruises “in various stages of healing,” her arm had been broken several weeks earlier and she had what authorities believed was a bite mark on her back, court documents show.

Authorities, her attorneys say, decided Mariah’s injuries were abuse and set out to confirm that theory while ignoring evidence that might prove her innocence.  

Hours after Mariah died, Melissa was interrogated by investigators, including a Texas Ranger who testified in Lucio’s trial for the state. The Texas Ranger has said that he knew Melissa was guilty based on her demeanor: Her head was down and she was avoiding eye contact — signs, he said, of her guilt.

This testimony has since been proven “scientifically baseless and false,” Melissa’s team says.  Citing a neuroscientist, it says scientific consensus today is there is no basis for the idea that some facial and body movements can reveal someone’s mental state.

The medical examiner who conducted Mariah’s autopsy also allegedly gave false info.

The forensic pathologist — who determined blunt force trauma was the cause of Mariah’s death — had been told that Melissa caused this injury by child abuse. This knowledge is “corrupted” according to Melissa’s defense team.  They are arguing that the autopsy and its findings, and the medical examiner failed to review other parts of Mariah’s medical history, including her trouble walking and documented history of falls due to a turned-in foot.

At trial, the medical examiner testified for the state the injuries could only be caused by abuse, pointing over the course of her testimony to the severe bruising across Mariah’s body, a fracture in her arm from several weeks before her death and purported bite marks on her back.

But Melissa’s attorneys, citing medical experts, have offered other explanations for the injuries: Mariah showed signs of a blood coagulation disorder that can result in severe bruising, they say, and a fractured arm is not uncommon in toddlers, particularly those with a history of falls.

Common causes of the blood disorder are head trauma — like that suffered in a fall down a steep flight of stairs — and infection, which Mariah appears to have been battling when she died, the habeas application states. And bite mark evidence and analysis has since been determined to be “invalid and unreliable,” it says, noting forensic odontologists have found expert testimony identifying injuries as a human bite mark is “without a scientific basis.”

In the Hulu documentary, Dr. Thomas also pointed out how none of the other children remember seeing bruises on Mariah prior to the fall. He said a Brian injury can result in severe bruising after the fact because your blood is no longer clotting. Even something as gentle as laying down on a bed could cause bruising.

Claim 2: New scientific evidence would preclude Melissa’s conviction

The second claim argues that a jury would not have found Melissa guilty if they knew about scientific evidence that was not available at the time of the trial.

According to her defense team, Melissa was convicted, in part,on the basis of statements she made to authorities in an hours long “guilt-presumptive” interrogation the night her daughter died. These vague indications she was responsible for some of Mariah’s injuries — but not an admission of guilt in her death, they say — were nonetheless presented at trial as a confession.

Two experts say that Melissa’s statements may have been a false confession.  They argue that she was particularly prone to false confessions due to the sexual abuse and domestic violence that she endured in her life.  

Her attorneys say that the lifelong trauma she encountered is new evidence that was not available at the time of her trial, and her jury did not hear testimony from an expert on false confession.

If they had, her attorneys argue, she likely would not have been convicted.

Claim 3: The evidence shows Lucio is innocent

This claim argues that taken together, the evidence Melissa’s team has put forward and the reports of experts “collectively, disprove every element of the prosecution’s case against Melissa.”

Given the evidence, much of it outlined above, no “rational juror would have found Ms. Lucio guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the petition says. And executing an innocent person would violate the Eighth and 14th Amendments, her rights to due process and amount to cruel and unusual punishment, it says.

Claim 4: The state suppressed evidence favorable to Lucio’s defense

The final claim alleges prosecutors suppressed evidence that would have helped Melissa.  They allegedly did not share it with her defense attorney, further undermining her conviction and violating her rights to due process.

That evidence included information from a Child Protective Services investigator who had interviewed some of Melissa’s other children, who corroborated Mariah’s fall and her deteriorating health and discounted allegations of abuse by their mother.

The defense attorneys also allege Mariah’s siblings’ statements to police were suppressed: Rather than providing Melissa’s defense attorney with their sworn statements, prosecutors gave the defense summaries that “omitted” potentially exculpatory information, the habeas application states.

This purportedly suppressed evidence, the document says, would have shown: authorities knew there were witnesses who said Melissa did not abuse her children; there were other family members aware Mariah fell down the stairs; and Mariah hadn’t shown any sign her arm was injured in the weeks before her death, among others.

One other interesting tidbit in this case is that the District Attorney in Melissa’s case is now in jail.  This info is from deathpenaltyinfo.org:

The district attorney who prosecuted Lucio’s case, Armando Villalobos, is currently serving a 13-year prison sentence imposed in 2014 for bribery and extortion. From 2006 through 2012 — including the time he prosecuted Lucio — he had accepted more than $100,000 in bribes in exchange for influence over his decisions as district attorney. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, he and others were involved in a “scheme to illegally generate income for themselves and others through a pattern of bribery and extortion, favoritism, improper influence, personal self-enrichment, self-dealing, concealment and conflict of interest.”

Interestingly, despite all the claims, there is one person close to Melissa who has been vocal about alleged abuse.

In 2021, Hulu released a documentary about this case called ‘The State Of Texas vs. Melissa’.

Her daughter Selina started to post on social media following the documentary release.  Selina is Melissa’s fifth child. You can view her TikTok account here.

Selina alleges that the abuse against Mariah started after the children were returned to Melissa’s custody.  Selina says that Lucio was, “not abusive to all of us. She started abusing only my sister, Mariah.”

She says in another video that she never witnessed physical abuse, only her mother pinching Mariah or excluding her but says she later became aware that other physical abuse was happening.

Selina recalls her mother excluding Mariah, keeping her separate from her other children on a number of occasions.

She claims bruises found on Mariah’s body were consistent with rings her mother would wear. 

She also claims three of her older siblings, who have largely stood by Melissa, were not around for the abuse and were living in a different home.

In the Hulu documentary,  Melissa also implies that another of her daughters, Alexandra, may have been responsible for Mariah’s death.

A mitigation specialist at trial named Norma Villanueva claims that Alexandra admitted during a family meeting in June 2008 that she “was the reason Mariah fell down the stairs.”

In a 2010 affidavit, one of Lucio’s sisters claimed to remember a different conversation in which Alexandra admitted to punching Mariah out of resentment for having to care for her while Lucio and her husband did drugs.

Alexandra denies being involved in Mariah’s death.

In the documentary, Alexandra does not recall these alleged confessions. She also spoke in one of her sister’s TikToks and claimed that blame was placed on her in an attempt to free Melissa. 

“My mom’s sisters said that she would get a lesser sentence if we said we abused my sister,” Selina adds.

Another of Melissa’s children, Bobby, has been speaking to the media.

He told The Independent that the “fight still isn’t over” to save his mother’s life and that his family still has a “long, long battle” ahead before she can walk free from death row.

“Even though we’ve got the stay it doesn’t mean the fight is now over,” he said.

“We’ve just completed the first step but there’s many more steps to come.

“It was a really big step but it’s still going to be a long, long battle.”

He also said that he and his brother John Lucio and sister-in-law Michelle Lucio have already held protests in Texas since the stay was granted in order to continue to draw attention to his mother’s story and to call for a new trial.

“We’ve organised some more protests for the next couple of months,” he said.

“Nothing has changed – we’ve got the stay but we’re still going to share her story.”

“[Her legal team] being able to present evidence that they weren’t able to use [in the first trial] like medical experts and false confession experts will make a big difference and will help,” he said.

Bobby was 7 years old when his mother went to jail.  He has said he “cried every night wanting my momma back” when she was arrested and he and his siblings were placed into foster care.

“Growing up I was always a momma’s boy so I was always wanting to be around her. I enjoyed her company. I remember she always played with me and made me laugh,” he said.

“It was very difficult then being put in foster care … you feel so alone and that no one is there for you.

“I cried every night wanting to be back with her, for my parents to come for us. I knew they weren’t coming but there was always that hope.”

Because of his young age, he couldn’t really understand what was going on at the time.

“I knew my sister had passed and that was why we were taken away from our parents but I didn’t grasp that we had been taken away because they were accusing them of it,” he said.

“I didn’t fully understand the situation at the time.”

One outspoken advocate for Melissa has been Kim Kardashian.

On the day that Melissa was granted a stay of execution, Kim wrote on Twitter:

Melissa’s attorneys acknowledge there’s a long way to go. But they’re optimistic that the stay now “opens the door to the potential of a new trial,” said Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, “and ultimately, complete vindication.”

“Hopefully the message is, we should not be denying possibly innocent people their day in court,” the Death Penalty Information Center director said.

Melissa has also spoken about her conviction:

“I knew that what I was accused of doing was not true. My children have always been my world and although my choices in life were not good I would have never hurt any of my children in such a way.”

“I thank God for my life. I have always trusted in Him. I am grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence,” she said in a statement.

This is an interesting stat from the Innocence Project:

Nearly 1 in 3 exonerated women were wrongly convicted of harming children or other loved ones in their care and over 70% were wrongly convicted of crimes that never took place at all — events that were accidents, deaths by suicide, or fabricated — according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations.











One thought on “Wrongful Conviction? | Melissa Lucio

  1. I’ll have to watch the Hulu documentary and read mire on this case, but she is at least guilty of child endangerment and neglect as well as her husband for doing drugs while the children were around. If you were already dirt poor, then it was irresponsible to have more children, and have the older one’s be responsible for the younger one’s. They didn’t sound like the best parents. That poor little girl paid the price for their neglect!

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