AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas’ highest criminal court on Monday halted the execution of Melissa Lucio two day before she was scheduled to die by lethal injection for the death of her 2-year-old daughter in a case plagued by questions of her innocence and the reliability of her confession.
In a three-page order, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sent the case back to the trial court in Cameron County to consider evidence of Lucio’s actual innocence and whether state prosecutors introduced false testimony at trial and withheld favorable evidence from her defense attorneys. The order was issued just before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was scheduled to vote on her request for clemency.
“I am grateful the court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence,” Lucio said in a statement released by her attorneys after the order. “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 was 38 and in the process of moving homes with nine of her 12 children in 2007 when she lost track of her youngest child, Mariah, before discovering her at the bottom of the two-story apartment’s steep staircase.
Now 53, Lucio has spent the last 14 years on death row after a jury in Cameron County convicted her of capital murder in July 2008 after prosecutors maintained that the girl was abused. The South Texas woman’s case has attracted international attention and a vehement push to stall her execution, including by five trial jurors who say they have concerns about withheld and asked that she be granted a new trial.
If her execution had continued as planned, Lucio would have been become the first Latina executed in the U.S. since the death penalty resumed in the 1970s, and the first woman in Texas since 2014 when the state put two women to death.
But unresolved questions surrounding the case, and the cause of Mariah’s death, have intensified, particularly over the last two months as new evidence of Lucio’s innocence has come to light. The case is the subject of the 2020 Hulu documentary, “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” and has been featured on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
In the habeas petition granted Monday by the state appeals court, attorneys claimed that Lucio was convicted of a crime that never occurred as a result of the little girl’s accidental fall down the stairs, presented at trial with what they say was a false confession, misleading medical testimony and a coerced, manipulative confession.
Tivon Schardl, one of Lucio’s attorneys, expressed gratitude to the hundreds of thousands of Texans and people from around the world who advocated for Lucio, including over 100 Texas legislators, faith organizations and anti-domestic violence/sexual assault organizations.
“We believe the court honored Mariah’s memory because Melissa is innocent,” Schardl said in a statement. “Melissa is entitled to a new, fair trial. The people of Texas are entitled to a new, fair trial. Texans should be grateful and proud that the Court of Criminal Appeals has given Melissa’s legal team the opportunity to present the new evidence of Melissa’s innocence to the Cameron County District Court.”
Vanessa Potkin, an attorney with the Innocence Project who also helped represent Lucio, said but for the state’s use of false testimony, no juror would have voted to convict Lucio of capital murder “because no murder occurred.”
“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. 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,” she said.
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