HOUSTON – The execution of Melissa Lucio is off. At least for now.
Lucio, 52, had been set to be executed by lethal injection Wednesday for the death of her 2-year-old daughter Mariah in Harlingen, a city of about 75,000 in Texas’ southern tip.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals intervened Monday, granting Lucio’s lawyers’ request for a stay of execution so a lower court can review claims that new evidence would show Mariah's injuries, including a blow to the head, were caused by a fall down a steep staircase.
Nearly half of the jurors who sentenced her to die for the 2007 death of one of her 14 children had called for her execution to be halted and for her to get a new trial. Many lawmakers and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, an advocate for criminal justice reform, and Amanda Knox — an American whose murder conviction in the death of a British student in Italy was overturned — have rallied to Lucio’s cause. Prosecutors, though, maintain that the girl was the victim of child abuse.
Lucio’s lawyers had filed various legal appeals seeking to stop her execution. She also had a clemency application before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which had been set to consider her case Monday. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott could have also played a role this week in deciding Lucio’s fate. If ultimately put to death, Lucio would be the first Latina executed by Texas since 1863, and the first woman the state has put to death since 2014.
Here’s what to know about the case:
WHAT ISSUES ARE BEING DEBATED?
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 sexual, physical and emotional abuse. 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 only could have been caused by physical abuse and not by medical complications from a severe fall.
“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,” Lucio wrote in a letter to Texas lawmakers.
Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, whose office prosecuted the case, has said he disagrees 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.
During a sometimes contentious Texas House committee hearing on Lucio’s case this month, Saenz initially pushed back on requests to use his power to stop the execution, before later saying he would intervene if the courts didn’t act.
“I don’t disagree with all the scrutiny this case is getting. I welcome that,” Saenz said.
Armando Villalobos was the county's district attorney when Lucio was convicted in 2008, and Lucio’s lawyers allege that he pushed for a conviction to help his reelection bid. In 2014, Villalobos was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison for a bribery scheme related to offering favorable prosecutorial decisions.
WHO IS CALLING FOR LUCIO’S EXECUTION TO BE STOPPED?
More than half the members of the Texas Legislature have asked that her execution be halted. A bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers traveled this month to Gatesville, where the state houses female death row inmates, and prayed with Lucio.
Five of the 12 jurors who sentenced Lucio and one alternate juror have questioned their decision and asked she get a new trial.
Lucio's cause also has the backing of faith leaders and was featured on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
Lucio’s family and supporters have been traveling throughout Texas and holding rallies and screenings of a 2020 documentary about her case, “The State of Texas vs. Melissa.”
Before the court decision Monday, Lucio's supporters held a prayer vigil inside the state Capitol in Austin as they waited for word from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on her clemency application. On Saturday, supporters held rallies in 16 U.S. cities, including Houston, Boston, and Columbus, Ohio.
WHERE DO EFFORTS TO HALT HER EXECUTION STAND?
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had been set Monday to consider a request to either commute her death sentence to life imprisonment or grant her a 120-day execution reprieve, but that hearing was put off by the appeals court’s order. Lucio also had an appeal pending in federal court to stop her execution. The federal appeal and the clemency petition are now put aside as the case returns to the trial judge in Brownsville.
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 that the appeals court grant her a new trial.
If the board had taken up her case and decided to recommend commutation of her sentence or a reprieve, that would have needed Abbott's approval. The governor has granted clemency to only one death row inmate since taking office in 2015. Abbott commuted a death sentence to life without parole for Thomas “Bart” Whitaker, who was convicted of fatally shooting his mother and brother. Whitaker's father was also shot but survived and led the effort to spare his son's life.
HOW FREQUENTLY ARE WOMEN EXECUTED?
It’s rare in the U.S., according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that takes no position on capital punishment but has criticized the way states carry out executions. Women have accounted for only 3.6% of the more than 16,000 confirmed executions in the U.S. dating back to the colonial period in the 1600s, according to the group's data.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 17 women have been executed throughout the nation, according to the data. Texas has put more women to death — six — than any other state. Oklahoma is next, with three, and Florida has executed two.
The federal government has executed one woman since 1976. Lisa Montgomery, of Kansas, received a lethal injection in January 2021 after the Trump administration resumed executions in the federal system following a 17-year hiatus. The Justice Department has halted executions again under the Biden administration.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70.