Melissa Lucio is on Texas Death Row for the murder of her two year old daughter. According to court documents paramedics showed up at the household and found the victim not breathing with no pulse. Lucio told the paramedics that the child had fallen down the stairs. However at the hospital the doctors found that the young child had been severely abused including a broken arm, bite marks on her back and bald spots on her head as well as countless other wounds.
When questioned by police Lucio said her child had fallen down the stairs and that the other children were responsible for her other injuries. Melissa Lucio would be convicted and sentenced to death
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Melissa Lucio 2021 Information
|Name||Lucio, Melissa Elizabeth|
|Date of Birth||07/18/1968|
|Age (when Received)||40|
|(Highest Grade Completed)||11th Grade|
|Date of Offense||02/17/2007|
|Age (at the time of Offense)||38|
|Height (in Feet and Inches)||5′ 2″|
|Weight (in Pounds)||170|
|Native County||Lubbock County|
Melissa Lucio Other News
Melissa Lucio was charged with capital murder for the death of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah. A jury convicted Melissa Lucio of this offense, and the trial court sentenced Melissa Lucio to death pursuant to the jury’s answers to the special issues at the punishment phase. Melissa Lucio raises fourteen points of error on direct appeal. Finding no reversible error, we overrule these points of error and affirm the trial court’s judgment.
The evidence presented in this case shows that, at about 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 17, 2007, paramedics were dispatched to an apartment where Melissa Lucio lived with nine of her children and an adult male named Robert Alvarez, who was the father of at least seven of these children and whom Melissa Lucio referred to as her husband. (1) One of the paramedics (Nester) testified that, when the paramedics entered the apartment, they found Mariah unattended and lying on her back in the middle of the floor not breathing and with no pulse. Nester observed that appellant’s “distant” and not “overly distressed” behavior was “so far out of the ordinary” that he “put it into the report.” Nester also testified that he “noted the fact that [appellant] was not-she wasn’t even within arm’s reach of the child much less trying to gasp [sic], hold her, or trying to do anything to hold them [sic].”
Melissa Lucio told police and paramedics at the scene that Mariah had fallen down some stairs. Mariah was transported to a hospital emergency room where she was pronounced dead. The condition of Mariah’s body indicated that she had been severely abused. There were bruises in various stages of healing covering her body, there were bite marks on her back, (2) one of her arms had been broken probably about two to seven weeks before her death, and she was missing portions of her hair where it had been pulled out by the roots. The emergency room physician (Vargas) testified that this was the “absolute worst” case of child abuse that he had seen in his 30 years of practice. Vargas also testified that his emergency-room visual and manual inspection of Mariah indicated no apparent signs of a head injury.
The chief forensic pathologist for Cameron and Hidalgo Counties (Farley), who conducted Mariah’s autopsy on Monday, February 19, 2007, testified that Mariah’s cause of death was “blunt force head trauma,” which would have occurred within 24 hours prior to her death, and it would have been immediately apparent that Mariah was in distress and in need of medical attention. Farley testified that Mariah suffered “multiple contusions” to her head area and that “blunt force head trauma . . . basically means, beat about the head with something-an object, a hand, a fist, or slammed.” Farley testified that these injuries would not have been caused by falling down some stairs and that this was the most severe case of child abuse she had ever seen.
On the night of February 17, 2007, several investigators questioned Melissa Lucio for about five hours, beginning at about 10:00 p.m. This interview was videotaped and was admitted into evidence in three separate DVDs (State’s Exhibits, 3, 4, and 5). Appellant initially told the police that Mariah had fallen down some stairs on Thursday night, February 15, 2007. For about three hours, appellant denied any knowledge of how Mariah became so badly bruised and suggested that her older children could have been responsible.
Texas Ranger Escalon began to question Melissa Lucio about two and one-half hours into the interrogation. Escalon testified at trial that, while he observed other investigators questioning her, he could tell from appellant’s demeanor that she was “beat” and that she was “hiding the truth.”
Q. [STATE]: Now, Officer, as you went in, you waited for a pause before you went in and you introduced yourself?
A. [ESCALON]: Yes, sir. I did.
Q. Can you describe to the jury how you go about doing that?
A. Well, my initial observation-that’s when the investigation starts, is when I walked into the room and I see the investigators interviewing the suspect.
I’m just observing right now, trying to soak it all in, and see what we have, and try to get a better idea about this lady. And I observe her, how she’s answering these questions, her demeanor, how she’s standing. All of that is telling me-it’s like a picture, almost-I’m observing everything, and that is already feeding me-that’s already telling me what I’m dealing with. Okay? And then I see the investigators and I’m just making note-I’m am [sic] making note-you know: Okay. This is what I have.
Q. What type of demeanor would you describe her having?
A. When I walked in, she was not making eye contact with the investigator. She had her head down. So right there and then, I knew she did something. And she was ashamed of what she did, and she had a hard time admitting to officers what had occurred. That’s what crossed my mind. And I knew she was beat. I knew-when I say she was “beat”-she was giving up. She wants to tell because she’s giving that slouched appearance-you know: I did it. I’ve given up. I need to interview her, visit with her a little more. That’s what I sensed. And I get that because of my experience in law enforcement, and my experience in interviewing people. Every time it’s pretty much similar, in demeanor, in people and that’s what I have experienced.
Q. Have you had other types of experiences in your experience as a trooper and investigator in interviewing people?
A. That’s one of the most common clues you would call-that you see-somebody with their head down, and like their shoulders are slouched forward, and they won’t look at you. They’re hiding-hiding the truth. (3)
Escalon testified that Melissa Lucio began to “open up” with him after about 20 minutes of questioning. Appellant’s recorded statement reflects that she told Escalon that she, and only she, had been “spanking” or “hitting” Mariah since sometime in December 2006. Appellant stated that Alvarez never “hit” or “spanked” Mariah and that Alvarez was unaware of most of the bruises on Mariah’s body. Melissa Lucio also stated that none of the other children “beat” Mariah and that no one except appellant “beat” Mariah. Appellant also stated that Mariah had been in her care for at least the previous three days. The jury also saw appellant on the videotape demonstrate with a doll how she abused and “spanked” Mariah.
Melissa Lucio also stated that she would “hit” Mariah when appellant got mad. Melissa Lucio also described how she pinched Mariah’s vagina and how she would sometimes grab and squeeze Mariah’s arm. Appellant described how she bit Mariah twice on the back at different times about two weeks before Mariah’s death. Appellant said that on one occasion she bit Mariah on the back for no reason while she was combing Mariah’s hair. Appellant said, “I just did it.” Appellant also stated that she would “spank” Mariah several times “day after day.”
Melissa Lucio stated that Mariah was “sick” on the day that she died, but that she was afraid to take Mariah to the doctor because of all the bruises on her. Appellant also stated that Mariah would not eat and that her breathing was heavy. Melissa Lucio said that Mariah slept all day on February 17, 2007, and that she would lock her teeth together when appellant would try to feed her. This was consistent with “blunt force head trauma” symptoms that Farley described.
Q. [STATE]: If the child suffers the type of brain injury that you’ve identified on this exhibit, would this child be able to sit up, eat Cocoa Crisps, and things of that nature?
A. No. Usually with this kind of hemorrhage, the child has some type of immediate sign. Most of the time, they say they’re very tired. They may seize and get very tense, and then relax, and get very tense, and then relax. People may not realize what it is, but sometimes parents will realize that that’s a seizure, and they’ll say, they’re seizing. Yet, they’ve never had a seizure before.
The other thing they will tend to do, is, the pressure increases because the brain will start to swell. They might start to vomit. And so if an ER doctor sees them, they may think they have a gastrointestinal virus, or something. But they’re vomiting because of the pressure in the head. So seizing-lethargy being very tired. Coma is very consistent. Abnormal respirations-they’re breathing a little funny. They take a big breath, and then they sit. And then it might go out. And then-ten seconds later, maybe another breath. So the breathing starts to also be affected as the brain starts to swell.
Q. Like on this type of injury, how far back would those symptoms had [sic] been known to somebody that is watching the child? At least since the inception, or when?
A. It’s usually fairly quickly after the fatal blow occurs that they’ll start to have the symptoms. And the first symptom is, they’re usually, they’re tired. They can’t keep awake. That’s the lethargy. They just can’t get them up-can’t get them awake. They won’t eat or drink, usually. And if they do, they vomit it.
Q. Do they ever suffer a condition where they can’t open their mouth-where their jaws are locked?
A. If the jaws are locked, that’s probably a seizure. Because things tighten up and you have muscles here that tighten and relax, tighten and relax, but it shouldn’t stay that way, indefinitely.
Escalon also testified that, when he questioned Melissa Lucio, he did not know, but he suspected, that Mariah had died from a fractured skull. Escalon can be seen and heard on the videotape informing appellant that an autopsy would be performed on Mariah and asking appellant “if they’re going to find a fractured skull.” Appellant replied that an autopsy would show that Mariah did not have a fractured skull, and appellant denied hitting Mariah in the head. Escalon also testified at trial:
Q. [STATE]: Now when you’re going through the interview with her, did you know the cause of death-the exact cause of death at that point?
A. [ESCALON]: No, sir. I did not.
Q. Based upon your experience of being a police officer or a ranger, and a DPS trooper, did you have a suspicion of what that cause of death was?
A. Yes, sir. I did.
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Q. What had you suspected occurred here to the child?
A. Head trauma.
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Q. And I think at one point she admits to all of the [visible] injuries except for the scratch on the face and one on the heel?
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Q. Now in the video, there is no actual-she doesn’t actually say that she in one direct blow, or one direct shot, hits Mariah on the head, or the head area other than general spanking. Is that true?
A. Yes, sir.
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Q. [DEFENSE]: Okay. But the head trauma you didn’t learn until, when you went into the autopsy, when you found out there was brain hemorrhage, and that’s what killed this child. Not the beatings, and the black and blue marks all over her body?
A. [ESCALON]: Again, when she was telling me what she did to that child, led [sic] me to believe based upon my experience the head trauma was very suspicious in this case.
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Q. The emergency room doctor, yesterday, stated that you couldn’t see that there was brain hemorrhage, and that the brain hemorrhage was something that wasn’t noticeable until later on.
A. There’s other signs of trauma that can cause bleeding inside of the brain. It doesn’t have to be visible. Other signs of shaking-hitting.
A police officer (Villarreal) testified that he allowed Melissa Lucio to make a cell-phone call to her sister while he was transporting appellant to a dental office for a dental mold. Villarreal testified that Melissa Lucio appeared to be agitated and that he heard her say during the telephone call, “Don’t blame Robert. This was me. I did it. So don’t blame Robert.”
The defense presented the testimony of a medical expert (Kuri), who seemed to testify that Mariah’s fatal injuries could have been caused by a fall down the stairs.
Q. [DEFENSE]: And your testimony, basically, is that the falling down the stairs is consistent with-just as consistent with the cause of death of this child as what the State is trying to suggest as the beating?
A. Well, we received a patient-a body that have [sic] a severe head injury. It was not caused by a simple force. It was caused by a serious force. So what type of serious force? But she-the mother hit her against the wall or somebody else? I am not saying the mother. But any person that would have caused her, okay, or fell, that’s trauma. See? There’s trauma on the head. What produced it? I don’t know. I don’t think-in the head, it is specific. There is no doubt that she died because of the hemorrhage that was produced by the trauma. Now, if you ask me the question: Which would be the type of trauma? So, if she fell from the stairs and rolling, if that’s how she died? That could be one. Hitting against the board? Yes. Hit by a strong force? Too. It could be.
During closing jury arguments, the defense argued that the jury should acquit Melissa Lucio because she was guilty only of “injury to a child” for the nonfatal injuries that she inflicted upon Mariah before the fatal injuries that Mariah suffered for which appellant disclaimed responsibility. The defense also claimed that appellant was guilty only of “injury to a child” for failing to get medical attention for these fatal injuries. (4) The defense thus claimed that Melissa Lucio did not cause any of Mariah’s fatal injuries. The defense also questioned whether the State’s evidence excluded the possibility that these fatal injuries were caused by Mariah falling down stairs.
[DEFENSE]: Now, in the opening remarks that we made in the beginning of the trial after you were all seated here, I told you my client is not up for “Mother Of The Year.” I told you that my client is guilty of injury to a child. She is and she has admitted that. The question here before you is whether or not on February 17, 2007, Melissa Lucio intentionally and knowingly killed Mariah Alvarez. That’s the issue. That’s the issue. Not whether she beat her. Not whether she broke her arm. Not whether she’s a lousy mother or didn’t provide for her children. That’s not an issue. The issue is whether or not she killed Mariah on the 17th of February, 2007.
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This whole case revolves around this video. This video is real important. If you have-if you cannot remember it all, play it again. It’s a long, long video. And I’m sorry for that. But this is the key to everything in this case. (5)
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Folks, the State wants you to believe that that’s a confession. Does the State know at the time of the video, the caused [sic] of death of Mariah? No. They don’t know the cause of death of Mariah until the next day when they go do the autopsy. They learn after the autopsy that Mariah died from brain hemorrhage. Blunt force trauma to the head. That’s when they first know about it.
She confessed to what? She confessed to bruising that child from head to foot. She confessed to neglect. She didn’t confess to murder.
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But I want to go back to the video because the video says a lot. The video is very important. Study that video because that’s where the [sic] all of the key is [sic]. Melissa Lucio said things. She didn’t have an attorney. Nobody is there to coach her and tell her what to say or how to say it. She’s there on her own. She has got Salinas, Cruz, Banda, Villarreal, and Escalon. Five law enforcement officers throwing questions at her. She’s there on her own. Nobody is helping her.
And she has told everything she knows and nobody is listening. She is telling us much: I beat this child. I neglected this child. I hurt my child, but I didn’t kill her. I didn’t hit her in the head. So how did she get the brain hemorrhage? Fell down the stairs. She fell down the stairs. Melissa Lucio says she fell down the stairs. What evidence does the State have to prove to you that this is not possible, that it didn’t happen? They don’t have anything.
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And there’s a reasonable doubt, and that is the possibility of falling down the stairs.
The State argued that the evidence and inferences from the evidence that appellant abused Mariah show that it was appellant who inflicted Mariah’s fatal injuries.
[STATE]: What injuries did the child have, if not a brain injury? Well, they tried to differentiate between: Well, you know what? I may have caused 110 bruises. I may have caused two or three bites on the body. I may have twisted the arm and broken it. But you know what? I never hit her on the head. Is that reasonable? Is that reasonable? That child was slapped, according to Dr. Farley, that child was hit across the head and that’s what caused the brain hemorrhage. It wasn’t. Because the evidence was inconsistent because of the abuse that this child had taken.
* * *
But the bottom line is she committed the acts which led to the cause of [Mariah’s] death. This child had bruised kidneys, a bruised spinal cord and bruised lungs. How do you do that? I mean, what force does it take somebody to cause such devastating injuries to a child and then say: You know what? I never touched her across the head. That’s just totally-totally unbelievable.
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You can draw inferences from the evidence, ladies and gentleman. And the inference is clear that she caused those injuries because it’s consistent. It’s consistent with her behavior. It’s consistent with her pattern of conduct towards this child. If this child had just come in with a head injury and nothing else, you might have said: You know what? It may have been a fall.
The State presented evidence at the punishment phase that Melissa Lucio has a prior driving-while-intoxicated conviction. The State also presented evidence that appellant committed several disciplinary violations in the county jail such as fighting with and having verbal disagreements with other inmates, possession of contraband, unauthorized communication with another person, and being disrespectful to a guard. The defense characterized these incidents as minor. The State also presented the testimony of a criminal investigator (A.P. Merrillet) for the State of Texas Special Prosecution Office, who testified about the opportunities that a life-sentenced Melissa Lucio would have to commit criminal acts of violence in prison. Merrillet also testified that he had prosecuted many prison guards for having consensual and nonconsensual sex with female inmates. The defense elicited testimony from Merrillet on cross-examination from which a jury could conclude that there would be a low statistical probability that a life-sentenced appellant would be dangerous in prison.
The State also presented the testimony of Estrada, who was a Child Protective Services (CPS) case worker. Testifying under a grant of transactional immunity because “[t]here was talk about [CPS] being indicted” as a result of Mariah’s death, Estrada testified that CPS removed Mariah and all of the other children living with appellant from appellant’s home for physical neglect and negligent supervision just after Mariah was born on September 6, 2004, and placed them in foster care. (6) Appellant visited Mariah while she was in foster care. CPS returned Mariah and eight other children to appellant’s home on November 21, 2006. Appellant told the police, during her recorded statement, that she was not close to Mariah because CPS removed Mariah from her home three weeks after she was born.
Estrada also testified about the various contacts that CPS had with Melissa Lucio between December 21, 1995, and Mariah’s death on February 17, 2007. Estrada testified that the CPS investigated various allegations, usually involving allegations of neglect and neglectful supervision, in 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. Estrada testified that appellant often tested positive for cocaine and that two of appellant’s newborns tested positive for cocaine during this period of time. (7) Estrada testified that “since ’04 [appellant] had about 17 or 18 positives and about 11 negatives.” The defense suggested, through its cross-examination of Estrada, that CPS should not have returned the children “to a parent who tested positive for drugs 18 times and negative for drugs 11 times.” (8)
Estrada also testified that Melissa Lucio tested negative in the two drug tests that were offered between November 2006 and February 17, 2007. In her recorded statement, appellant told the police that she had not used drugs since February 2006, but that Alvarez had recently begun using crack cocaine. The police found paraphernalia for smoking crack cocaine in a search of appellant’s apartment after Mariah’s death. Farley testified that Mariah had cocaine in her blood at the time of her death. Other evidence was presented that Melissa Lucio received about $5,000 per month in welfare benefits most of which the State claimed appellant used to support a cocaine habit. (9)
Melissa Lucio presented the testimony of two mitigation experts (Villanueva and Pinkerman). These experts testified, based primarily on appellant’s statements to them after the charges in this case had been filed, that appellant was depressed and that she was a battered woman and had been sexually abused as a child. For example, Villanueva and Pinkerman testified,
Q. [DEFENSE]: Was she-is there any indication that she was ever abused as a young child?
A. [VILLANUEVA]: Yes, she was. She was sexually abused by one of her mother’s lovers, a live-in lover, and it lasted for approximately two years, the duration that he was in the home.
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Q. [DEFENSE]: Is there any kind of abuse by her first marriage?
A. [VILLANUEVA]: Yes. Her first husband, which was her only legal marriage, Mr. Lucio, he was an alcoholic. And he was emotionally and verbally abusive most of the time and physically abusive when he was drunk. But being an alcoholic, that was quite active. There was also a very manipulative relationship there with her sister-in-law Sylvia, who introduced her to cocaine. She was 16 years old.
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Q. [DEFENSE]: And your findings in this case?
A. [PINKERMAN]: In the part of the assessment with the intelligence test, the other part is more of a personality test to determine my general diagnostic impressions. And my general diagnostic impressions of her were that she was overutilizing a lot of repression and denial. And repression to the point where, again, a disconnect between thoughts and feelings or experiences and feelings. And I saw that in both her test behavior and in my observations that I reported earlier.
In assigning diagnosis to her, what I identified is that she had a presentation consistent with major depression with prior substance abuse which was in remission. But maybe most importantly post traumatic stress disorder in how she, I guess, psychologically was organized. And those are the three major areas of concern that I saw with her. She was also, and I also acknowledged it in a different report, the victim of prior physical and sexual abuse both as an adult and as a child.
Villanueva also testified that Melissa Lucio “has no history of aggression at all as a child, adolescent or through her entire CPS history, which was a good part of her adult life.” Pinkerman testified that there is a low probability that appellant is a risk to reoffend “in a prison setting.”
Q. [DEFENSE]: And what did you use to reach that conclusion. [sic].
A. [PINKERMAN]: Her presentation in the interview, the history that I had before me, her description of the history, the psychological testings like I’d done with her in my formal psychological evaluation, and then the large body of literature both in the psychological literature and in the State Department of Corrections literature that talks about the different levels of risk for offenders within a prison population. Because when I’m looking at the risks, I’m not considering getting the parameters of the present circumstances any issue of risk to the community. That is often not a part of my assessment.
Q. And your opinion then, sir, is what?
A. Her risk-there’s-okay. I’ll try to just answer your question. There’s a low probability that she’s a risk to reoffend-
A. -in a prison setting.
During its initial closing jury arguments, the State emphasized the “horrific” circumstances of this offense, appellant’s “history” of violence against Mariah, and appellant’s misbehavior in the county jail in arguing that “[t]his isn’t going to end with Mariah. This is going to continue.”
[STATE]: The defense argued at the beginning of this trial that Mariah died of injury to the child. She was beaten. Now, the first expert told you that the defendant-there is no history of aggression at all. She’s obviously wrong. That’s not what the defense told you. That’s not what the [police] video shows. And she demonstrates on that video how she hit that little girl time and time again. There is history of aggression. Mariah’s death is proof of that. What can you conclude from the first expert’s testimony? She is simply wrong. She got it wrong.
The next expert tells you: No history of violence. Again, remember what [appellant’s lawyer] told you? She’s guilty of injury to a child. She’s guilty of beating that little girl. Well, obviously this expert got it wrong, too.
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What can you conclude? Look at Mariah. You’ve seen the photographs. No history of violence? Really? Are we talking about the same person, the same defendant? They got it wrong.
I want to talk to you about Mariah and the nature of this crime against her. Because we’ve all seen the photographs. We heard from Dr. Vargas who told us it’s the worst he’s ever seen in his 30 years. Dr. Farley told us the same thing. Worst case of child abuse ever in our community. Look at this little girl. Look at her. She was defenseless, innocent. Her daughter.
The nature of this crime speaks for itself. She was beaten to death. This is not one time. Deliberate acts, over, and over, on this poor little girl. This is a crime of hatred. A crime of violence. Not just one time. Not an accident. The manner of death of which this little girl died is also tragic. It’s also horrific.
There’s many of you on this jury that work in the medical field and can understand the suffering that she endured from her little brain swelling. Dr. Farley told you that brain swelling inside her head, went into her spinal cavity, she would have suffered. She would have trouble breathing. She would have seizures and just lay there. She let her lay there and suffer.
A very painful cruel death. That is what is so horrific about this case, that this little girl laid there in that bed when she could have simply called for help, taken her to the doctor, done something to protect this little girl. The manner of death in this case is so horrific because she suffered for so long, this little baby girl. It was simply torture and cruel.
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And I want you to look at Melissa Lucio jail record because this jail record speaks to you about the type of person that she is. And in the short time that she’s been in jail she has had physical altercations, verbal altercations, been in possession of contraband, unauthorized communication, inciting a riot, and confrontational towards the staff. What does that tell you about the type of person that she is now? And that’s only here in our jail. Imagine what she’s going to be like when she gets to Huntsville or wherever she ends up. Look at these records, because they records [sic] speak for themselves.
Melissa Lucio is like a dog that bites a human person. Once that dog bites, they will always have-there will always be a probability that it will bite again. Same thing with this defendant. Her record speaks to you: This isn’t going to end here. This isn’t going to end with Mariah. This is going to continue.
The defense argued during its closing jury arguments that the State did not present “one scintilla of evidence as to future dangerousness.”
[DEFENSE]: The first question has to do with future dangerousness. What have we heard one scintilla of evidence as to future dangerousness of this person?
We had the guy, Mr. Merrillet, or whatever his name was, from Conroe. If you take his own statistics, he never spoke about Melissa specifically. Never once did he talk about her. In fact, he came up here and told you, I’m not going to talk about her. I don’t know her life. So he gives statistics.
What are the statistics he gave us about the future dangerousness of criminals in general? He told us there are 12,000 female inmates in the Texas Department of Corrections as of 2007. That’s 12,000. How many assaults were there in that population? Seventeen. That is one one-hundredth of a percent.
What else do they bring you here? They bring you the jail records. This is one thing where I agree with the State. Please, look at Melissa’s jail records. Look at them. They bring to you that Melissa Lucio was in a dorm with eight people and they found tattooing equipment above the lights. None of the girls would admit to having been the owner of it. So that is evidence of future dangerousness? Oh, but she was in a fight. Look at the fight. You all look at them. I saw you all looking at the records. She got in blocked punches in one of the fights. The other one, the girl hit her. Please. There’s not a scintilla of evidence of future dangerousness, much less beyond a reasonable doubt.
What else do they bring here of future dangerousness? To answer question number one, Melissa Lucio’s got a past history, a criminal history. What was that? A DWI. If we poll the people in this courtroom today sitting here, throughout this courtroom there would be a good number of folks who’ve gotten a DWI. It doesn’t mean that they are a future danger.
What didn’t they show you? They didn’t show you one past act of physical abuse to any children. Not one. They didn’t show you one past act where she’s ever been charged with a crime involving any physical harm to anyone else.
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Is there a probability of continuing acts of violence? Probably not. We’ve heard that from the State’s main person who they bring down because just from the statistics, there’s no probability. We heard it from Dr. Pinkerman who also said there’s very little probability that she would ever do anything of violence.
During its final closing jury arguments, the State emphasized appellant’s behavior in the county jail and her abuse of Mariah over a period of time in support of its argument that appellant “has already shown a tendency to be violent . . . to be abusive, to be aggressive and to injure innocent people.”
[STATE]: This wasn’t an isolated incident where she lost it and she killed this child. Melissa Lucio made this child suffer. Every time she injured this child she had to have gotten some pleasure from it because she didn’t do it one time. She did it over a period of weeks and probably months.
Is this a person that you want out there in a society of prisoners? She has already shown a tendency to be violent, ladies and gentlemen, to be abusive, to be aggressive and to injure innocent people. She’s just as likely to go after the innocent-other innocent individuals, people that may be within the prison system. Because Mr. Merrillet has told you that they don’t classify them by capital murder. They can put him [sic] in with a burglar, with somebody who’s writing hot checks. She can victimize other individuals.
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Try to marginalize her behavior in jail now. That’s what we’re being accused of. We’ve looked at the little things to show a consistent pattern. Even now when she’s caught in jail, awaiting trial, whatever rules she can still break, she’s still breaking them.
Her own people say, she has a history of that. She’s not going to change her stripes. Is she going to do that automatically because you spared her? No. She’s never going to changer her stripes.
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Sabrina Van Tassel had no interest in making a documentary about Harlingen resident Melissa Lucio, the first Latina to be sentenced to death in the state of Texas. From what the filmmaker had read, Lucio — who was found guilty in 2008 of killing her 2-year-old daughter Mariah — was an abusive mother who confessed to a horrific murder.
Then, Van Tassel met Lucio and her family. Her opinion immediately changed
“I was the very first journalist they had ever met in their life,” Van Tassel said about her new documentary The State of Texas vs. Melissa. “No one wanted to hear [Melissa’s] side of the story. Right away, I knew there was really something wrong with this story.”
What Van Tassel began to unravel was a complex narrative that many believe involves an unfair trial, a forced confession, incompetent lawyers, incomplete witness testimony and a district attorney who was later sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery, extortion and racketeering.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned Lucio’s conviction. The state appealed the decision and the hearing was delayed by the pandemic. For now, Lucio waits behind bars. Will her overturned conviction be upheld, or will she have to make a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and hope it hears the case?
The State of Texas vs. Melissa is currently streaming on VOD platforms.
What ultimately drew you to Melissa’s story?
My instincts told me that [Melissa Lucio] wasn’t the kind of person who could [kill her child]. I called her lawyer and she said she knew Melissa was innocent, but there was nothing they could do. She said I was too late and that [Melissa] was going to be executed within nine months to a year. So, I asked her to send me all the paperwork on her trials, and I started reading. I made calls to people and they would be like, “Oh, why are you interested in Melissa Lucio? Why her?” Melissa Lucio [represents] everything society despises — she’s a woman, Hispanic, poor, she has 14 children. Her life was worth nothing to them. It was like, “Ugh, let her rot in Hell.” That’s the reason I decided to tell her story.
Do you hope this film can help Melissa’s case moving forward?
Definitely. So far, every single news article has helped her. From the very beginning of this project, I was like, “This woman is innocent. What am I going to do? Go back to my life and forget about her?” What you see in the film are facts that have been presented at court and during her appeals. That’s enough evidence for her to get a new trial. Even if she had done what she’s accused of, she shouldn’t be on death row.
How would you describe Melissa when you interviewed her in prison?
She was very calm. Melissa is a very nice person. She is loved by other inmates and by the guards. She doesn’t get into fights. She is the best kind of inmate. She’s very lenient and truthful. The very first time I met Melissa, she told me that she doesn’t deserve to be on death row but she deserves to be where she is because she didn’t protect her daughter like she should have.
What is the current family dynamic between Melissa’s children since one of them, Alexandra, is accused in the film of being the actual perpetrator of the abuse of Mariah?
It’s kind of a mess. All the older siblings stick to the story that Alexandra had some issues with Mariah. Of course, Alexandra doesn’t see the same thing. There are one or two siblings who grew up with Alexandra who have her back. I interviewed most of [Melissa’s children] and none of them ever said, “We saw our mom [hit Mariah].” All the older kids are still very close to Melissa. They write to her and strongly believe she is innocent. They also believe they are third-class citizens who will not get justice because nobody is interested in their family.
Are you worried about Melissa’s case because of what is currently happening with the U.S. Supreme Court?
We are very worried because Donald Trump has appointed right-wing judges who are in favor of the death penalty and who tend to not want to deal with these cases. And in Texas, they execute. It’s not like in other states where you have years before the execution goes through. In Texas, it can go quite fast. That’s why I want to make a lot of noise about her story. Melissa wouldn’t be on death row if she wasn’t poor or Hispanic. There is already something wrong with the U.S. justice system. It is unjust and unfair. But if we execute Melissa Lucio, there is really something wrong with the U.S. justice system.