During a tense hearing in the Texas state House on Tuesday, the Cameron County district attorney overseeing Melissa Lucio’s case indicated that he may be willing to intervene to stop Lucio’s execution, currently scheduled for April 27. Lucio has been on death row for 15 years now, after a jury sentenced her to death in 2007, finding her guilty of killing her 2-year-old daughter.
Lucio’s lawyers and many criminal justice reform and domestic violence advocates have long argued that her daughter’s death was a tragic accident caused by a fall down several flights of stairs. They’ve also argued that Lucio’s “confession” was false and coerced, a result of both aggressive interrogation from law enforcement and her lifelong history of trauma and domestic abuse.
Amid a bipartisan effort to pressure Cameron County DA Luis Saenz and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to postpone or stop Lucio’s execution, state Reps. Jeff Leach, a Republican, and Joe Moody, a Democrat, convened a House hearing this week to discuss Lucio’s case. At the hearing, after hours of testimony and intense back-and-forth between lawmakers and Saenz—as well as audible crying from Lucio’s children, who were in attendance—Saenz ultimately indicated that if the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals does not intervene before April 27, he’ll withdraw Lucio’s death warrant.
“My understanding of his remarks to the committee were that if we don’t get a stay or clemency issued … then he will step in and withdraw his request for an execution date,” Leach said after the hearing. “That was unequivocal to the committee, and we got it on tape.”
This pledge from Saenz marked a notable shift from his stance at the beginning of the hearing. Saenz initially repeatedly stated that he stood by Lucio’s conviction, as well as the numerous court rulings upholding her death sentence, which would make her the first woman in Texas in decades to receive the death penalty. Hours later, Saenz seemed to pivot, first telling legislators he wouldn’t intervene because the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would likely stop Lucio’s execution, before finally pledging to take action if it didn’t.
The legislative hearing comes amid a surge in public awareness about Lucio’s case, thanks in part to stars like Kim Kardashian using their massive platforms to bring attention to it. Additionally, as of this week, five of the jurors who sentenced Lucio to death have now spoken out and said they would have voted differently based on the information they know about her case, today.
“I did not know that her long history of physical and sexual abuse made her vulnerable to falsely confess when subjected to aggressive interrogation tactics on the night of her daughter’s death,” one juror, Johnny Galvin, Jr., wrote in an op ed in The Houston Chronicle last month. Experts have said surviving abuse renders someone more likely to take responsibility for crimes and actions they’re not actually responsible for, as a trauma response. Galvin added that “there were so many other details” about Lucio’s case overall that “went unmentioned.” He claimed that throughout the trial, jurors weren’t told that Lucio had denied abusing her child more than 100 times during the interrogation.
According to Lucio’s lawyers, at 3 am and only after hours of aggressive, exhausting questioning, when police asked if she was responsible for some of her child’s injuries, she told them, “I guess I did it.” This statement, her lawyers say, was then taken out of context and inaccurately wielded by prosecutors as a confession.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office, however, maintains that Lucio’s daughter was the victim of the “absolute worst” child abuse seen by her emergency room doctor in three decades, with injuries including a broken arm, bite marks, and ripped out hair. In a February court filing, the office stated, “Lucio advances no evidence that is reliable and supportive of her acquittal.”
Still, Lucio’s supporters say there are too many flaws in the prosecution’s case and police officers’ investigation, which neglected to even test evidence it had collected to see if Lucio’s DNA could be matched to injuries on her daughter’s body. Instead, they relied solely on her “confession” to charge her with her daughter’s injuries. Armando Villalobos, then the district attorney overseeing Lucio’s case, would later be sent to federal prison for corruption in 2014 for crimes that occurred around the same time of Lucio’s trial, which included accepting bribes for lenient prosecutorial action.
What’s indisputable in Lucio’s case is that she’s a survivor of violence and trauma, and our criminal legal system has systematically criminalized survivors. Nearly 90% of incarcerated women, who are predominantly women of color, are survivors of sexual violence. Some are criminalized for self-defense against an abuser, while others are subjected to criminal charges if an abusive partner harms their children. Even pregnant women can be criminalized if they experience violence and lose their pregnancies as a result.
As April 27 draws near, Lucio’s family and supporters await urgent action that Saenz has now seemingly pledged to take, pending inaction from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.