Have you heard of Melissa Lucio? She is an inmate in Texas currently sentenced on death row. But possibly one of the most incredible parts of her story is how the Catholic bishops in Texas are working to save her life. Here's what you need to know (and how you can help).
On March 22, 2022, the 21 Catholic bishops in Texas wrote to Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and Governor Greg Abbott calling for a stay of execution and clemency for Melissa Lucio who is sentenced to be executed on April 27.
The bishops wrote that they’re appealing for Ms. Lucio “not solely because of the Church’s opposition to the death penalty and the inherent dignity of every human life, but also due to the mitigating circumstances surrounding her case.” Melissa Lucio, mother of 14 and grandmother, has maintained her innocence over the death of her daughter, Mariah, for the last 14 years. She has found support not only from the Texas bishops, but also from the Innocence Project and John Oliver.
Who is Melissa Lucio?
Melissa Lucio is a Catholic, Mexican-American mother. She is also a survivor who endured lifelong, repeated sexual assault and domestic violence beginning at age 6, while also fighting the cycle of poverty. In an attempt to escape her situation, she married an alcoholic abuser at 16. She and her husband had five children before he left her to fend for herself and their children. Ms. Lucio found herself with another abusive partner and another nine children, including Mariah. Before her incarceration, Melissa was not only fighting to survive her home life but also life in poverty with 14 children, experiencing intermittent homelessness and foster care. Despite struggling to provide for her family, she was described as a loving and caring mother.
On February 15, 2007, Ms. Lucio’s two-year-old daughter Mariah fell down a flight of stairs while the family was moving. While Mariah did not appear injured after the fall, two days later she was unresponsive after a nap. Mariah was taken to the hospital, where she was declared dead and detectives were called in to interrogate Ms. Lucio.
Ms. Lucio, who was pregnant with twins at the time, was rushed into an interrogation room while still processing the loss of her daughter. Detectives berated and intimidated her, using coercive tactics known to lead to false confessions. This interrogation went on until 3:00 AM, when Melissa gave in, saying, “I guess I did it,” in an attempt to end the interrogation.
The district attorney’s office sought a murder conviction and the death penalty as a result, even though the child’s father was charged with endangering a child and only sentenced to four years in prison. Rather than spending her time grieving this tragic accident and loss, she has spent the last 14 years incarcerated and faces execution in April.
Ms. Lucio’s legal team has filed a petition to the governor and Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, asking them to grant clemency citing “coercive tactics used against Ms. Lucio, the misleading evidence presented at her trial, and declarations from five jurors who served at her trial stating they have grave concerns about evidence that was withheld and would support relief in her case” as reasons for a stay of execution to allow time for further review of her case. The Innocence Project provides an overview of the specifics of the systemic failure and injustices that occurred during her trial.
Women Face Unique Injustices in the Justice System
Women face unique challenges and injustices when it comes to facing the justice system. Melissa Lucio’s case is no different. Her case was impacted and driven by these factors that resulted in her wrongful conviction and imprisonment, shedding light on systemic issues.
Melissa’s experience is based on two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions of women: false admissions made during police interrogation and faulty forensic evidence. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, “Approximately 40% of exonerated women were wrongly convicted of harming children or other loved ones in their care and nearly 70% were wrongfully convicted of crimes that never took place at all – events that were accidents, death by suicide, and fabricated.”
Ms. Lucio’s coerced confession should not be surprising. She was not only berated and intimidated for hours in a state of grief, but is herself an abuse survivor who struggled with PTSD, addiction, and poverty by the time she was 35. Women who are survivors of sexual abuse and violence are more vulnerable to falsely confessing under coercive conditions. Expert witnesses were ready to speak to how her previous trauma informed her false confession, but they were excluded from evidence and not allowed to present at the trial. The National Registry of Exoneration records that of the 67 women exonerated after a murder conviction, 17 of them involved false confessions and 20 involved child victims.
Women, especially mothers, accused of harming a child also tend to be perceived more negatively than men, and even demonized in the media. Nearly one in three female exonerees were wrongly convicted of harming a child. The sentencing of Melissa Lucio in comparison to her partner, Mariah’s father, demonstrates this perception and its influence on the process of trial, conviction, and sentencing.
Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty
In 2018, Pope Francis solidified the Church’s development on teaching concerning the death penalty that began with Pope St. John Paul II. The pope approved a new draft of section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty. The teaching states that while historically the death penalty has been considered an “appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes,” today “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes” and therefore “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.’”
Regarding this revision, Pope Francis wrote to the bishops that the death penalty entails “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” and is often a result of the “defective selectivity of the criminal justice system” and “the possibility of judicial error.”
Cases like Melissa Lucio’s reaffirm the reality of the errors made by the criminal justice system and the irreparable consequence that state executions bring to not only the incarcerated, but also to their families. The Texas bishops heed this call to fight for human life through their advocacy for Melissa Lucio.
How Can You Help Melissa Lucio?
The Texas bishops state in their letter that “[j]ustice was not served by Ms. Lucio’s conviction and will not be served by her execution, considering her history as a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, her troubling interrogation by law enforcement, and the unanswered questions regarding the manner of her daughter Mariah’s death” and so they call for the governor “to commute her death sentence and conduct a meaningful review of her case to enable this family to continue the hard work of restorative justice and healing.”
Interested in adding your voice to that of the Texas bishops, the Innocence Project, and others fighting for Melissa’s life?
- Visit www.savemelissa.org and sign the petition for a stay of execution in her case.
- Follow the Innocence Project’s guidelines for campaigning on social media.
- If you live in Texas, you can call D.A. Saenz to urge him to withdraw the execution date (956-300-3881) and Governor Abbot to request a stay of execution (956-446-2866).