Update: After national outcry, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution April 25, temporarily halting Melissa Lucio’s death sentence from being carried out. The fight continues to win her freedom.
Originally published by Breaking the Chains magazine.
Note: This article references Melissa Lucio’s long history as a victim of abuse and sexual violence.
Melissa Lucio was born into abuse. She grew up watching her mother get beat up by her partner. At 6 years old, older relatives began sexually abusing her when her mom wasn’t home. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, she suffered sexual abuse at the hands of different men. At 16, she married a man who she hoped would offer a new kind of life. He became violent and abusive too. After she bore five of his children, he abandoned them. She married again to another partner and had seven of his children. He too was abusive, repeatedly raping her and threatening to kill her. At 35, pregnant again with twins, Melissa suffered from severe trauma, addiction, poverty, and intermittent homelessness.
On February 15, 2007, Melissa was moving her family into a new apartment, when her youngest child, 2-year-old Mariah, fell down a dangerously steep set of exterior stairs. She worried if her husband found out, he would beat her. The child’s injuries did not appear life-threatening, so she decided not to take her to the hospital. Two days later, Mariah went down for a nap and never woke up.
At the emergency room, the cops arrived and hauled Melissa off for questioning. As reported by the Intercept, a string of interrogators berated her for five hours, accusing her of abusing and killing her daughter. They utilized a range of coercive techniques against her—techniques known to produce false confessions, particularly from vulnerable individuals such as victims of abuse and trauma. They used maximization and minimization techniques, yelling at her, coaxing her, insisting she admit to abusing and killing her 2-year old. They repeatedly showed her graphic photos of her daughter’s dead body and suggested to her the ways she had caused them. More than one hundred times Melissa repeated that she didn’t kill her daughter. But after hours of their insistence, emotionally and physically exhausted, she gave the cops what they were demanding and parroted their assertions that she beat her child. She eventually uttered, “I guess I did it. I’m responsible.”
Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos championed her statements as a “confession” to homicide. The false confession was backed up by experts for the prosecution, who based their determinations on faulty assumptions and flawed science. District Attorney Villalobos, who today is serving a federal prison sentence for corruption charges, was intent on villainizing Melissa as an abusive and homicidal mother and winning a death penalty sentence against her to bolster his re-election efforts.
The State of Texas could find no physical evidence establishing that Melissa had ever abused any of her 12 children. Thousands of pages of Child Protective Services records document that Melissa’s children never mentioned her abusing them. The judge blocked Melissa from presenting the key explanation for her false confession. She was not allowed to raise the history of constant abuse which, over three and a half decades, conditioned her to give in to the demands of aggressive men.
Texas officials have set Melissa to be executed on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. But the fight to stop her execution is not over. As details of Melissa’s case have come to light, organizations and individuals across Texas and the country have rallied to her cause. Hundreds of Texas anti-domestic violence groups, Latino organizations, falsely convicted exonerees, faith leaders, and Melissa’s children have rallied behind her, demanding clemency. A bipartisan group of more than 80 members of the Texas House of Representatives recently joined the call, sending a letter on March 27 to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles urging clemency. Four of the jurors who convicted Melissa have come forward expressing grave concerns about the evidence withheld from them in the capitol trial and support relief in her case. You can help Melissa by spreading the word widely and shedding light on this injustice.
For poor women, witch hunts never ended
Melissa Lucio was born into a society which tramples, bullies, demonizes, and ignores women, especially poor women like her. For her whole life she was both the punching bag and the scapegoat.
Tragically, Melissa is far from the only woman who has suffered a tragedy and found herself at the center of a witch hunt. Coerced false confessions, especially among women wrongly convicted of killing a child, are a leading cause of wrongful convictions. Women who have suffered physical and sexual abuse are particularly vulnerable to police coercion. A staggering 70% of exonerated women were wrongly convicted of a crime that never even happened.
Today, states across the country are increasingly turning to vigilantism to police women. For Melissa Lucio and all women, it is more urgent than ever for women to join together and fight back to combat this dangerous state-backed misogyny.
Free Melissa Lucio! Stop the witch hunts! Stop the execution!