HOUSTON – A Texas appeals court on Monday delayed the execution of Melissa Lucio amid growing doubts about whether she fatally beat her 2-year-old daughter in a case that has garnered the support of lawmakers, celebrities and even some jurors who sentenced her to death.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a request by Lucio’s lawyers for a stay of execution so a lower court can review her claims that new evidence would exonerate her.
Lucio had been set for lethal injection Wednesday for the 2007 death of her daughter Mariah in Harlingen, a city of about 75,000 in Texas’ southern tip.
Prosecutors have maintained that the girl was the victim of abuse and noted that her body was covered in bruises. Lucio's lawyers say Mariah died from injuries she sustained in a fall down a steep staircase several days before she died.
“I am grateful the court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence," Lucio said in a statement provided by her lawyers. “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. I will use my time to help bring them to Christ. I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf.”
Lucio's mother, Esperanza Treviño, tearfully thanked all of her daughter's supporters, saying, “Thank God for the miracle."
Lucio was first told her execution had been delayed in a phone call with state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican who has helped lead a bipartisan effort to halt her execution, said Vanessa Potkin, one of Lucio’s attorneys who is with the Innocence Project.
“She sobbed. She was just overwhelmed," said Potkin.
In a statement, Leach said he was grateful the appeals court had “pushed the pause button on her execution, saving the state of Texas from the irreversible blunder of potentially killing an innocent citizen."
The execution stay was announced minutes before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had been set to consider Lucio's clemency application to either commute her death sentence or grant her a 120-day reprieve. The paroles board did not review her clemency petition because of the execution stay. If the case were to come back before the board in the future, Lucio's lawyers would have to file a new petition.
Lucio’s attorneys say her capital murder conviction was based on an unreliable and coerced confession that was the result of relentless questioning and her long history of being sexually, physically and emotionally abused. They say Lucio wasn’t allowed to present evidence questioning the validity of her confession.
Her lawyers also contend that unscientific and false evidence misled jurors into believing Mariah’s injuries could have been caused only by abuse and not by medical complications from a severe fall.
“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," said Potkin. "All of the new evidence of her innocence has never before been considered by any court. The court’s stay allows us to continue fighting alongside Melissa to overturn her wrongful conviction."
Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, whose office prosecuted the case, said in a statement he expected the execution to be delayed because various legal issues remain unresolved.
“I welcome 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 ... That is our criminal jurisprudence system, and it is working," said Saenz, who was not in office when Lucio was tried in 2008.
During a sometimes contentious Texas House committee hearing on Lucio’s case this month, Saenz had said he disagreed with Lucio’s lawyers’ claims that new evidence would exonerate her. Prosecutors say Lucio had a history of drug abuse and at times had lost custody of some of her 14 children.
In its three-page order, the appeals court asked that the trial court in Brownsville that handled Lucio’s case review four claims her lawyers have made: whether prosecutors used false evidence to convict her; whether previously unavailable scientific evidence would have prevented her conviction; whether she is actually innocent; and whether prosecutors suppressed evidence that would have been favorable to her defense.
It was not immediately known when the lower court would begin reviewing her case. Tivon Schardl, one of Lucio's lawyers, said they hope to convince the trial judge to recommend a new trial. If such a recommendation is made, that would then be sent to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which would make the final decision on a new trial.
More than half the members of the Texas Legislature had asked that her execution be halted. A bipartisan group of state lawmakers traveled this month to Gatesville, where the state houses female death row inmates, and prayed with Lucio.
One of those lawmakers, El Paso Democratic state Rep. Joe Moody, tweeted that he was relieved for Lucio. “A stay confirms what we’ve said all along: Melissa Lucio shouldn’t be on death row," he wrote.
Five of the 12 jurors who sentenced Lucio and one alternate juror have questioned their decision and asked that she get a new trial.
Lucio’s cause also has the backing of faith leaders and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, and it was featured on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70