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.
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.