Melissa Lucio files clemency application in death penalty case

Melissa Lucio (Courtesy: Melissa Lucio's attorneys)

Appeals attorneys representing a Harlingen mother sitting on death row for killing her toddler daughter hope Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles will grant her request for clemency.

An application for clemency was filed Tuesday on behalf of Melissa Lucio, 53, who is scheduled to be executed April 27, 2022, for the February 2007 murder of her daughter Mariah Alvarez.

According to attorneys representing Lucio, new evidence that the jury never heard showed that Lucio was a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence and was wrongly convicted.

Lucio’s attorneys and others involved in her case held a press conference via Zoom Tuesday outlining what they say were failures in her capital murder case.

A Cameron County jury in 2008 found her guilty on one count of capital murder for causing the death of Mariah Alvarez. The little girl had been beaten. Lucio denies killing her daughter.

On the night of Mariah’s death on Feb. 17, 2007, Lucio told police and EMS personnel that her daughter had fallen down some stairs, according to federal court documents.

Later that night, during a videotaped interview with investigators, Lucio explained that she has caused the bruises on Mariah’s body by spanking Mariah “real hard”…and Lucio said nobody else would hit her.”

During an interview with a Texas Ranger Lucio later admitted she was responsible for her daughter’s death, prosecutors said. Lucio’s appeal’s attorney says she was coerced to confess.

“My office intends to file a timely response to Lucio’s Application for Reprieve and Commutation (it is due at noon on April 12, 2022),” said Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz in a statement. “My office intends to file a response to Lucio’s Motion to Disqualify me and my office as soon as the question of the disqualification of Judge Garcia is resolved.”

Mark Anthony Vasquez walks back and forth while wearing a signboard Tuesday in a vigil for Melissa Lucio outside the Cameron County Judicial Complex. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

According to Tivon Schardl, assistant federal public defender with the Capital Habeas Unit, the Board of Pardons and Paroles usually won’t make a recommendation for or against clemency to the governor until a few days prior to the scheduled execution.

“In a case with this much new evidence of innocence it’s imperative that they act more quickly and that they recommend a reprieve or that the governor exercises his authority to grant a reprieve so that there can be a hearing and the evidence can be heard fully,” Schardl said.

This was an “investigation that was plagued by tunnel vision,” said Vanessa Potkin, of the Innocence Project. “Officials never fully considered what happened to Mariah and instead they set out to build a case against Melissa.”

Lucio’s clemency application contains new forensic analyses and declarations from four jurors who stated they had grave concerns about evidence withheld from Lucio’s capital murder trial and “would support relief.” An alternate juror who did not join jury deliberations also submitted a declaration supporting relief for Lucio.

A portion on her application states that Abbott has established a special process for survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking to apply full pardons. “By sparing Melissa’s life, the Board would be sending a message to thousands of women in Texas, who like Melissa, are victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. The path out of that abuse doesn’t end in abandonment. In Governor Abbott’s words the ‘true path’ of clemency leads to ‘redemption and restoration’.”

Abraham Bonowitz and Charles Keith of Death Penalty Action do a livestream Tuesday during a vigil for Melissa Lucio outside the Cameron County Judicial Complex. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Potkin said Lucio and her family were in the process of moving into another apartment when Mariah fell down a flight of stairs at the old apartment. “Melissa didn’t see what happened but when she couldn’t hear Mariah playing anymore, she went to look for her and she saw Mariah at the bottom of the staircase 14 steps that led down to the yard.”

Potkin said Lucio said it didn’t appear that Mariah was seriously injured and that she was bleeding from a cut to her bottom lip, but there were no outward injuries. Mariah was transported to the hospital where she died two days later.

Lucio underwent over five hours of interrogation but investigators refused to believe that someone or something else might have led to Mariah’s death, Potkin said.

According to Potkin, Dr. Michael Laposata, chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas branch at Galveston, found that at the time of Mariah’s death she had indications of a disorder called Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation that causes extensive bruising.

A fall that Mariah experienced down the flight of stairs is “precisely the type of trauma that lead to DIC and DIC can cause profound bleeding and bruising. It can occur quickly and throughout the body with no additional trauma whatsoever,” Potkin said. “In patients with DIC even routine handling at home or in a hospital setting can cause significant bruising.”

“DIC associated bruising can be and has been like it was here incorrectly attributed to child abuse. The jury that convicted and sentenced Melissa to death never heard this explanation for Mariah’s bruises,” she said.

Lucio’s attorneys said the jury never heard this explanation for Mariah’s bruises and believe this would have changed the outcome of her trial.

“An innocent woman was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death based on false unscientific evidence. Person after person made the unfounded assumption that Melissa was an abuser and refuse to consider any evidence to the contrary,” Potkin said.

A motion for a stay of execution and a petition are pending in the Court of Criminals Appeals, and attorneys anticipate there will be additional filings in state and federal courts.