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Melissa Lucio, only Latina on Texas death row, seeks clemency as execution looms

Lucio, 53, was convicted in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah, in 2007. Her supporters say she was wrongly convicted and that police coerced a confession.
Melissa Lucio cries after receiving a death sentence on July 10, 2008, in Brownsville, Texas.
Melissa Lucio cries after receiving the death sentence July 10, 2008, in Brownsville, Texas.Theresa Najera / Valley Morning Star via AP file

Lawyers for the sole Latina on Texas' death row filed a clemency petition Tuesday ahead of her planned execution next month, presenting evidence they say indicates she was wrongfully convicted and that four jurors at her trial now question their guilty finding.

The latest bid to spare Melissa Lucio's life comes 14 years after she was sentenced to death in a capital murder case involving the youngest of her dozen children at the time. Prosecutors at her trial said that Lucio had been physically abusive toward her daughter, Mariah, and that the 2-year-old girl had bruising on her body, signs of a head injury and an untreated broken arm when she was brought to the hospital in 2007 and died.

But supporters for Lucio, who has maintained her innocence, believe she was convicted on false medical evidence and that police coerced a confession from her that became the linchpin of the trial.

Lucio, 53, is set to die by lethal injection April 27. The clemency filing is not asking for a full pardon, but rather a commutation of her death sentence to a lesser penalty, or at the least, a 120-day reprieve from execution as she seeks a new trial.

"Mariah's death was a tragedy, not a murder," Lucio's lawyer, Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, said during a news conference Tuesday.

"It would be an absolutely devastating message if this execution went forward," she added. "It would send a message that innocence doesn't matter."

Gov. Greg Abbott and the Cameron County District Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment about whether they might intervene. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles declined to comment Tuesday.

Lucio's legal team acknowledged she faces a tough road because it is rare for the Pardons and Parole Board to hold a new hearing and recommend clemency in a capital case. The board will typically make its recommendation on a clemency filing within days of an execution date, said Tivon Schardl, Lucio's federal public defender.

Lucio, who had no prior prison record, is one of six women on death row in Texas. The last time the state executed a woman was in 2014, and there are about 50 women on death row across the United States, according to the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center.

Lucio's lawyers also filed a motion in February to have her execution date withdrawn.

On Feb. 17, 2007, Lucio and her husband, Robert Antonio Alvarez, were in the process of moving homes in south Texas when Mariah fell down a flight of stairs, according to court filings.

According to Lucio's legal team, the girl had a mild disability in which her feet were turned to the side, and so she was prone to tripping and had a history of falling. While her parents didn't think she was seriously injured in the fall, two days later, Mariah was unresponsive and paramedics took her to a hospital where she was declared dead. Lucio was interrogated that same night for over five hours by detectives with the Texas Rangers.

In the filing for clemency, Lucio's attorneys included what they say is new forensic evidence that the jury did not hear. It also detailed how seven nationally recognized experts, including scientists and forensic specialists, who reviewed the case concluded that she was convicted on "unscientific" and "false" evidence, and an unreliable confession that was "essentially a mere 'regurgitation' of facts and words officers fed to her."

Lucio's lawyers also said that Lucio was sleep-deprived and pregnant with twins at the time of her interrogation, and given how long investigators were questioning her, the "nighttime interrogation further increased the risk that she would falsely incriminate herself," the clemency application says.

Her lawyers said that Lucio had been the victim of sexual abuse since she was 6 and of domestic violence by two partners, which made her "extremely vulnerable and susceptible" to being interrogated by male police officers.

"Melissa was a victim long before she was a defendant. We have little doubt that Melissa's case would be handled differently today," said Daisy Lopez, the director of operations with Friendship of Women, a social services organization in Brownsville, Texas. 

"Based on the current research and literature showing how trauma survivors cope with violence, Melissa was not given the opportunity to access community resources and specialized victim services that would have changed the outcome for Melissa and her children," Lopez said, adding, "This is not how we would support survivors of violence today."

Armando Villalobos, the Cameron County prosecutor in Lucio's capital murder trial, was sentenced in 2014 to 13 years in federal prison for his part in a bribery and extortion scheme.

One of Lucio's sons, Bobby Alvarez, said her execution would be a trauma he could not overcome. 

"If she was executed ... I wouldn't be able to function anymore," he said in a statement included in the clemency application. 

Alvarez was 8 years old when Lucio was sentenced. "She is my mom ... I beg you not to execute her," he added.

Texas, which has the most active death chamber in the country, currently has three other executions planned for 2022 besides Lucio. One that had been scheduled for March was halted by the state Court of Criminal Appeals, while a number of claims made by the death row prisoner are reviewed.