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A Texas death row cell. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

New pressure could pause the execution of Melissa Lucio, the first Latina sentenced to death in Texas

She was convicted in the murder of her two-year-old child, but there are holes all over the case finally coming to light.

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One of the few women on death row in Texas just got a rare glimmer of hope in her case: the district attorney who ordered her execution is now saying that if the courts don't stop her death, he will.

During a legislative meeting on April 12, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz said that he will step in and put an end to Melissa Lucio’s execution. 

Saenz had previously stated that he stood by the process that resulted in Lucio’s conviction as well as the many court rulings that have upheld her death sentence. 

But after about an hour of pushback from lawmakers, Saenz agreed to intervene. 

“If defendant Lucio does not get a stay by a certain day, then I will do what I have to do and stop it,” he said. 

Lucio, the first Latina in Texas to be sentenced to death, is scheduled for execution on April 27 for the murder of her two-year-old child. Despite initially confessing to the crime after hours of questioning, the 53-year-old mother has maintained her innocence.

In 2007, Lucio’s family called 911 after finding two-year-old Mariah unresponsive in her bedroom. The toddler had stopped breathing and her body was covered with bruises and what police believed was a bite mark. According to X-rays, her arm had recently been broken.

The signs of child abuse led police to believe that Mariah was severely beaten and her death was ruled a homicide. Because her mother was thought to be the one home the most, Lucio became the main suspect in the case.

The night her daughter died, Lucio told police that Mariah fell down the steps a few days ago, and only witnessed the aftermath. She was unaware of how many steps Mariah had fallen. At first, the toddler seemed to be okay, but over time she became sluggish and refused to eat. 

Under police interrogation, Lucio forcefully and repeatedly denied all implications of her abusing her daughter. 

But after about three hours, it seemed that Lucio started to break down and started agreeing with Texas Ranger Victor Escalon, who leaned into her closely and spoke in a soft, reassuring voice, which was seen in interrogation footage. 

Eventually, Lucio said “what do you want me to say? I’m responsible for it.” 

Debates over whether Mariah’s fatal head trauma was accidental, and if it wasn’t, who inflicted the injury. Lucio’s case was founded entirely on a vague confession. 

Furthermore, the judge at Lucio’s trial declined to hear expert testimony that could have shed light on why she would admit to police things that she didn’t do. 

Lucio’s case has now become an international movement, and a growing lineup of former jurors, foreign ambassadors, celebrities, and more than half of the Texas House of Representatives, has urged the state parole board to take Lucio off death row. 

Mental health evaluations show that Lucio suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to years of domestic violence, and five of the 12 jurors who sentenced her to death have expressed doubt over her guilt.

Kim Kardashian, who recently passed California's first-year law students' exam, has used her platform to speak out about Lucio’s sentence.

Kardashian, who has been an advocate for criminal justice reform over the past few years, has urged Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to grant Lucio clemency.

“There are so many unresolved questions surrounding this case and the evidence that was used to convict her,” Kardashian wrote in a tweet on April 6.

Kardashian, who has over 72 million followers, also attached a photo of a letter in which Lucio’s children begged Texas to spare their mother’s life. She described it as “heartbreaking.”

“The death of our sister Mariah and the prosecution of our parents tore our family apart. The wounds never fully healed. They probably never will. We ask you not to tear those wounds open again,” the letter read.

Melissa Quintanilla, the foreperson on Lucio’s jury, wrote in an affidavit to the parole board this week that at first the trial made her view Lucio as a “monster,” but her perspective has now changed.

“Now I see her as a human being who was made to seem evil. Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and for a new jury to hear this evidence,” Quintanilla wrote. 

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