Shelby Tauber/Texas Observer

A Texas Mother Could Be Executed in April. Was Her Child’s Death Really a Murder?

Melissa Lucio, whose execution could take place this year, claims her innocence.

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Update: Melissa Lucio’s execution date has been set for April 27, 2022.

In 2007, paramedics arrived at a tiny apartment that Melissa Lucio shared with her live-in partner, Robert, and nine of her 14 children in the Rio Grande Valley. They found two-year-old Mariah sprawled on her back in the middle of the floor. The girl wasn’t breathing. The family was in the process of changing apartments, and Lucio said Mariah, her youngest, had gotten hurt after she fell down a set of rickety stairs. 

Mariah was declared dead on arrival at a Harlingen hospital, where a physician found she had an untreated broken arm, bruises, and signs of a serious head injury. The Texas Rangers—the investigative arm of the Texas Department of Public Safety—launched a homicide probe that same night.

They focused on the parents. After their probe ended, Mariah’s father, Robert Alvarez, who claimed ignorance of the girl’s injuries, was sentenced to four years for reckless injury to a child for failing to seek medical care.

Mariah’s mother was sentenced to death. Even in Texas, Lucio’s punishment stands out: She’s one of five women and the only Latina on Texas death row. Last year, she lost an appeal in a split decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit; this month, a Cameron County judge signed an order to set her execution date in April. In February 2021, a larger group of judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit split in February 2021 and voted narrowly—10 to 7—to uphold the execution.

If the execution is allowed to proceed, it will be the first time since 2014 that any woman has been put to death in Texas. Lucio claims she is innocent, and her 14-year-old capital murder conviction is clouded by questions.

Her appeal, now pending at the U.S. Supreme Court, argues that a corrupt district attorney used incriminating statements coerced by a Texas Ranger to wrongfully convict her of beating her child when in fact, the girl’s fatal injuries likely resulted from her fall. It also suggests that her long history as a victim of physical and sexual abuse may have played a role in the statements she made during a late-night interrogation by the Texas Rangers.

“This is as clear a case of injustice as you’ll ever see: Melissa Lucio faces imminent execution for a capital murder that never happened,” said Tivon Schardl, a member of her appellate defense team, in a statement emailed to the Texas Observer. “Melissa, an innocent woman, faces execution in less than 100 days because a corrupt prosecutor relied on a statement coerced by an overzealous Texas Ranger who badgered a traumatized woman into making a false confession.”

Court records show that one Ranger zeroed in on Lucio as a suspect soon after the death, mainly because she seemed subdued and kept looking down while being questioned. In the interrogation video, Lucio initially blamed her child’s fatal injuries on a fall and repeatedly denied hurting her. Only after two and a half hours did she begin to “open up,” the Ranger later testified. At his urging, she admitted that she had been “spanking” or “hitting” Mariah since December 2006. She insisted that neither her husband nor the other children “beat” Mariah and that Mariah had been in her sole care for the previous three days. 

In a videotape played for the jury, the Ranger then instructed her to demonstrate on a doll how she’d “spanked” Mariah. When Lucio initially didn’t do so hard enough, he demonstrated how she should spank the doll himself. 

A 2020 documentary about her story, “The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” included claims that Melissa may have made those statements partly because she wanted to protect a teenage daughter, who often babysat her siblings and was with her little sister when she fell. That information was never presented in court. Neither were two defense experts allowed to testify at trial about how Lucio had been sexually abused as a child and battered by a former husband—experiences that had made her submissive and sometimes caused her to shut down, her pending appeal says. 

In August 2021, a group of ex-prosecutors, joined by 16 anti-violence organizations and experts in the field of gender-based violence, filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review Lucio’s case. They argued that a judge’s order to exclude expert testimony on the effects of trauma had “deprived Melissa of the only means she had of explaining that, notwithstanding her demeanor and self-incriminating statements, she was innocent of her daughter’s murder.” Lucio’s “flat affect and acquiescence” to police’s suggestions that she killed her daughter “were symptoms of trauma resulting from the violence she had endured throughout her life”—and not evidence of guilt. 

But one of the biggest questions posed by her appeal: Was any murder committed at all?

A Cameron County Medical Examiner blamed her death on head trauma, and claimed it was consistent with child abuse and not with a fall down a set of steep stairs. But defense attorneys have repeatedly challenged that finding, and say other evidence shows that Lucio never beat any of her kids. Investigators who reviewed older files involving Child Protective Services reports about Lucio’s children found evidence of child neglect during Lucio’s past struggles with cocaine addiction and homelessness. But Lucio’s children repeatedly denied their mother ever physically harmed them or Mariah, according to information in her appeals. None of the children testified at trial.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said a string of recent death row exonerations involves parents falsely accused of murdering children based on “junk science.” Many children in those cases actually died from injuries suffered in accidents, from illnesses, or from other medical conditions. Several falsely accused defendants also were victims of abuse or had been demonized by prosecutors. Dunham said he sees a string of red flags that suggest a similar injustice might have been committed in Lucio’s case. “The prosecutors attempted to dehumanize her.”

The Innocence Project and the Innocence Network have also filed a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that police “interrogation may sometimes psychologically pressure even innocent people to confess to crimes they did not commit.” The groups argued that the risk of a false confession is “heightened when the interrogated suspect is a battered woman.”

Armando Villalobos, the former elected Cameron County District Attorney who secured the death penalty against the Lucio was corrupt—and previous unsuccessful federal appeals challenged her conviction based on evidence of his wrongdoing. Villalobos was convicted of bribery and extortion in 2014 for accepting more than $100,000 in bribes to fix cases and is serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison. From October 2006 through May 2012, including the time he prosecuted Lucio, Villalobos and others were involved in a “scheme to illegally generate income for themselves and others through a pattern of bribery and extortion, favoritism, improper influence, personal self-enrichment, self-dealing, concealment and conflict of interest,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Villalobos participated directly in Lucio’s prosecution and later used his victory as fodder for a successful re-election campaign. Less than a year after the trial, Villalobos hired Lucio’s defense attorney as an assistant district attorney. 

A prison spokesperson said Lucio’s proposed April execution date has not yet been confirmed.