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With one week to go, push to stall Texas woman’s execution grows

Trial jurors, legal experts and 100 bipartisan Texas legislators are loudly calling to halt Melissa Lucio’s April 27 execution.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Sabrina Butler-Smith knows what it’s like to be convicted of a crime she didn’t commit.

The first woman exonerated from death row in the United States, Butler-Smith was a teenager in 1990 when she was convicted of murder and child abuse for the death of her infant son Walter Dean Butler after he suddenly stopped breathing.

She sat in a Mississippi prison for six and a half years, nearly three of which she spent as the only woman on the state’s death row, before she was fully exonerated following a 1995 retrial. A Mississippi Supreme Court ruling reversing her convictions three years earlier found that prosecutors failed to prove anything beyond an accident occurred in her son’s death.

Now 51, Butler-Smith is one of a growing number of supporters who are fiercely calling for the life of Texas death row inmate Melissa Lucio to be spared with one week to go before the the Lone Star State executes her by lethal injection on April 27 under circumstances eerily similar to her own.

“To be accused of a crime you didn’t commit is hard,” Butler-Smith said Tuesday during a livestreamed “call-a-thon” in support of Lucio, whose 2-year-old daughter Mariah died in her sleep two days after falling down a steep, 14-step staircase.  

“My son died the same way, he stopped breathing and later on I would find out that he had heart, kidney and lung problems and it had nothing to do with me at all,” she said. “And yet I was put through being accused of killing him and put on death row and fighting for my life.”

Like Butler-Smith, Lucio and her attorneys claim the South Texas mother of 12 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 false evidence, misleading medical testimony and a coerced confession.

New Evidence

Lucio, 53, has spent 14 years on death row after a jury in Cameron County convicted her of capital murder in July 2008 for the death of her youngest daughter the previous year.

If her execution date is not stalled by next Wednesday, Lucio will become the first Hispanic woman executed in the U.S. since the death penalty resumed in the 1970s, according to the Innocence Project.

But new evidence of Lucio’s innocence, mostly developed over the last two months and never before heard by a court or jury, may be the last legal option for halting her execution. Lawyers on Friday filed a habeas petition in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after other attempts for court intervention in the last few years have failed.

Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation with the Innocence Project and an attorney for Lucio, said she joined the case in January when her client's execution date was set because the organization recognized “that Texas was on the verge of executing an innocent woman.”

“Nobody’s ever considered her risk factors for falsely confessing or the coercive interrogation method,” Potkin said Tuesday. “We’re trying to get the new evidence of her innocence to be considered by a court and the court has the power to stay, to halt the execution, so that we can have hearings and so that this new evidence of her innocence can be considered.”

Also pending is an application for clemency before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which can recommend clemency to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, although the governor has the power either way to grant Lucio a reprieve.

A push for Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz to withdraw Lucio’s death warrant has continued to mount, which became a point of contention, and confusion, during a heated exchange last week at a legislative hearing on the case. While Saenz repeatedly defended the process that led to Lucio’s conviction, and the various court rulings upholding her death sentence in previous years, he stated that he would not intervene, before shifting his position.

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“If defendant Lucio does not get a stay by a certain day, then I will do what I have to do and stop it,” Saenz told the state House Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform.

"I'm Responsible"

Lucio, a onetime janitor, was 38 and in the process of moving homes with nine of her 12 children when she lost track of Mariah during the course of packing before discovering her at the bottom of the two-story apartment’s wobbly staircase. In the two days following the fall, Mariah’s condition deteriorated as she was sleeping more, had been throwing up and stopped eating until family members found her unresponsive while asleep and called 911.

When paramedics arrived at Lucio’s apartment on the night of Feb. 17, 2007, she was quickly treated with suspicion and, according to her April 15 habeas petition, victimized by “an investigation plagued by tunnel vision, where the investigators continually assumed the worst about Ms. Lucio without adequately exploring – or even considering – alternatives.”

Within two hours of Mariah’s death, Lucio was brought into an interrogation room and spent the next five hours being questioned by investigators. Potkin said an average interrogation lasts about an hour and a half, and after that, the intense questioning becomes “a risk factor for false confessions.”

“So this was exceedingly long and it was coercive, it was manipulative, it was abusive,” she said. “They showed her photographs of her baby girl who was dead and said, ‘Mariah’s never coming back, you did this, you must’ve done this.’ Over a hundred times she asserted her innocence and they kept interrupting her.”

Her attorneys say the “clear message” of the interrogation was that it wouldn’t stop until Lucio told investigators what they wanted to hear. As the hours wore on, Lucio agreed she was “responsible” for Mariah’s injuries.

“So ultimately, she took responsibility for some of Mariah’s injuries and that was used as a confession at her trial,” Potkin said.

Missing from the trial was medical evidence of Mariah’s extension health history. She had struggled with illness and developmental delays since birth, according to court records, including a turned-in foot and history of falling, a traumatic brain injury as a result of a fall at a daycare program and a blood coagulation disorder.

In recent months, five jurors have come forward to give declarations stating their concerns about evidence withheld from them at trial. Each indicated they would support relief, as has an alternate juror who did not join the deliberations.

They are joined by 80 members of the Texas House of Representatives and 20 members of the Texas Senate in opposition to Lucio’s execution, as well as Lucio’s children, religious leaders, anti-domestic violence groups and exonerees of wrongful convictions.

“I have never seen a more troubling case than the case of Melissa Lucio,” said Texas state Representative Jeff Leach at a press conference following last week's committee hearing.

“This is wrong to send an innocent person to their death,” Butler-Smith said. “Melissa like me loved her children and wouldn’t do anything to hurt her kids. I just want to say mainly to Melissa just fight, hold your head up and don’t give up because there [are] people who are in your corner, and I’m one of them.”

Even Kim Kardashian chimed in: “So heartbreaking to read this letter from Melissa Lucio’s children begging for the state not to kill their mother,” she tweeted to her 72 million followers April 6 along with a copy of the letter. “There are so many unresolved questions surrounding this case and the evidence that was used to convict her.”

On Saturday, the Death Penalty Action Network will host a National Day of Action in support of Lucio in almost a dozen cities, including Austin, Brownsville and San Antonio as well as Washington, D.C., New York and Atlanta.

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