By Léa Dauple
The looming execution of a US mother-of-14 — sentenced to death in a controversial case for the murder of her toddler daughter — has provoked backlash from celebrities like Kim Kardashian and a growing movement that reaches well beyond US borders.
Melissa Lucio is to be put to death on April 27 for the 2007 murder of her two-year-old daughter Mariah, whose body was found at the family home covered in bruises, days after falling down stairs.
Pregnant with twins at the time, Lucio’s life had been marred by both physical and sexual assault, drug addiction and financial insecurity. She was immediately suspected by police of having hit her daughter and questioned at length, just hours after the death.
After saying “that she hadn’t done it nearly a hundred times,” at 3:00 am she made a “completely extorted” confession, according to Sabrina Van Tassel, director of the hit documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” which came out in 2020.
“I guess I did it,” Lucio eventually told her interrogators when questioned about the presence of the bruises.
That confession was “the only thing they had against her,” said Van Tassel, convinced that “there is nothing that connects Melissa Lucio to the death of this child, there is no DNA, no witness.”
During the trial, a doctor said it was the “absolute worst” case of child abuse he had seen.
But Mariah had a physical disability which made her unsteady while walking, according to Lucio’s defense — and which could have explained her fall.
The defense also argued that the bruises could have been caused by a blood circulation disorder.
None of Melissa’s children had accused her of being violent. As for the prosecutor, he was later sentenced to prison for corruption and extortion.
‘Miscarriage of justice’
Now the documentary has sparked widespread interest, causing a whole movement to coalesce around Lucio.
Reality star Kim Kardashian tweeted to her tens of millions of followers on Wednesday that there were “so many unresolved questions surrounding this case and the evidence that was used to convict her.”
And Lucio’s story has ignited media in Latin America, fascinated by the tale of the first Hispanic woman to be sentenced to death in Texas — the US state that has executed the most people in the 21st century.
In France, former presidential candidate Christiane Taubira said Lucio is probably a “victim of a miscarriage of justice.”
Even one of the jurors who sentenced her expressed his “deep regret” in an editorial published on Sunday.
Lucio is also winning support from US Republicans, traditionally defenders of capital punishment.
About 80 Texas lawmakers from both parties have demanded authorities call off the execution.
Several have been to visit her in prison. “As a conservative Republican myself who has long been a supporter of the death penalty… I have never seen a more troubling case than the case of Melissa Lucio,” said one of them, Jeff Leach.
The flood has come as a “shock” for the death row inmate, her son John Lucio told AFP.
When he showed her the messages from celebrities like Kardashian, “she couldn’t believe it.”
The last 15 years have been “very difficult,” said Lucio, who was a teenager at the time of the tragedy and had “to cope with it, knowing that I lost my sister and then my mother being charged for it.”
But this year “has been the hardest because we got the execution date in January,” said the 32-year-old.
He is convinced that she would never have been condemned “if she had had the money.”
The case brings to light the issue of false confessions.
It is difficult to estimate how many there may have been, but according to data from The Innocence Project, which fights against miscarriages of justice, out of every four people wrongly convicted and exonerated thanks to DNA evidence, one had already confessed to the crime.
In homicide cases, that number rises to 60 percent, according to Saul Kassin, professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
And someone who, like Lucio, has experienced trauma and violence is “less resistant, more likely to comply, they have less tolerance for the stress of an interrogation,” and is therefore more likely to admit to a crime they did not commit, he said.
Lucio has exhausted her appeals — but her team has filed a clemency petition, typically not decided until days before an execution. Prosecutors can also withdraw the death warrant and agree to reinvestigate the case, according to the Houston Chronicle.
And if all else fails, Texas governor Greg Abbott still has the authority to delay Lucio’s death.
A strong supporter of capital punishment, he has only granted clemency once before.