IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Melissa Lucio's case highlights police missteps in questioning abuse survivors, experts say

Lucio, sentenced to death for killing her daughter, maintains her innocence. She is now fighting to stop her April 27 execution.
Get more newsLiveon

Hours after Melissa Lucio's 2-year-old daughter died in 2007, Texas Rangers took Lucio to an interrogation room where they yelled at her, threatened her and showed her pictures of her dead child, her attorneys said.  

The Rangers believed Lucio had killed Mariah on Feb. 17, 2007, saying that her unwillingness to make eye contact and her slumped shoulders were signs of guilt, according to a clemency petition filed on March 22. An appeals court opinion detailed how an investigator said he "knew she did something" because of her demeanor.

The hourslong interrogation ended with Lucio being coerced into confessing, her legal team has said, arguing that her past experiences with physical abuse and sexual assault made her susceptible to taking responsibility for her daughter's death even though, they said, she was innocent.

The Texas Rangers did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails for comment about the case.

Lucio is now fighting to stop her April 27 execution date

Experts who have studied false confessions and trauma response said Lucio's behavior is common in abuse victims and criticized the Rangers' interrogation tactics.

Melissa Lucio
Melissa Lucio holds her daughter Mariah. Lucio, who is an inmate on Texas death row, is set to be executed on Apr. 27, 2022 for the 2007 death of Mariah.Family photo via AP

"What victims learn to do in these relationships in order to survive the abuse or violence is they learn to capitulate, they learn to comply, they learn to appease. So you respond to threats, you respond to violence, you respond to demands, you respond to the escalating voice by saying, 'Yes, yes, I'll do it,'" said Mindy Mechanic, a forensic psychologist and professor emeritus at California State University, Fullerton. "If you think about what's happening in an interrogation, that's a very parallel process."

Lucy Guarnera, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia who studies false confessions, said law enforcement often uses "behavioral lie detection" techniques that look at a person's actions to predetermine innocence or guilt. 

But this can be detrimental because "a lot of trauma symptoms look like these behavioral cues of lying," Guarnera said. 

Interrogated for more than five hours

As noted in the appeals court opinion document, one of the investigators described Lucio's behavior.

"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," he said. "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."

The investigator went on to say that he knew Lucio wanted to confess "because she's giving that slouched appearance."

Details about what allegedly happened in the interrogation room were also outlined in the clemency petition. It stated that Lucio, who was pregnant with twins, was questioned by two armed detectives for more than five hours. The detectives shouted at her, berated her for being a neglectful mother, and implied that if Mariah's death was not her fault then it had to have been one of her children, according to the petition.

At one point, a ranger got within inches of Lucio's face and said there was evidence that did not look good, the petition stated. He then told Lucio that he would "help" her if she told him what he already knew. 

The detectives also handed Lucio a doll and asked her to demonstrate what happened, according to the petition. They implied that if she did not confess, she wouldn't be allowed to attend Mariah’s funeral. 

Lucio asserted her innocence more than 100 times — by verbally saying 86 times that she did not kill Mariah and by shaking her head no 35 other times, the petition said.

As the interrogation dragged on, Lucio told detectives that she had hit Mariah in the past, but did not say she killed the little girl. "What am I going to say? I'm responsible for it," she said, according to the petition. During her trial, those statements were presented to the jury as her confession.

Lucio has said that her daughter — who had a condition that caused her foot to be turned in — fell down a flight of outdoor stairs as the family was preparing to move to a new apartment. Mariah was crying but did not appear to have any serious injuries, Lucio said. She died two days later. 

Prosecutors, however, painted a different picture. Court documents show that prosecutors argued at Lucio's trial that she had repeatedly abused Mariah and killed her by hitting her in the head.

The district attorney's office said in a statement to the Brownsville Herald that Mariah had been "severely beaten," had "bruises in various states of healing covering her body" and had missing portions of her hair. Lawyers for Lucio deny those claims and say the bruising was a result of the fall.

"Her autopsy revealed bruised kidneys, a bruised spinal cord and bruised lungs," the D.A. said, adding that an emergency room doctor said it was the "absolute worst" case of child abuse.

Abuse victims more likely to falsely confess

Lucio, born in Lubbock, Texas, endured years of abuse and violence, according to her attorneys. At 6 years old, she was sexually assaulted by one of her mother's partners, her legal team said in the clemency petition. 

She allegedly suffered abuse by multiple partners that continued throughout her teenage years and into adulthood.

As a result, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociation, according to her legal team. Lucio also has a lower-than-average IQ. Experts said these conditions are all risk factors that make a person more likely to falsely confess.   

"People generally confess falsely to get out of the interrogation room," Guarnera said. "Interrogation is also a very cognitively demanding task so you need to be listening, you need to be parsing the truth and falsity of the information, you need to be thinking about your future options and consequences." 

Trauma victims who dissociate may not fully grasp the severity of the situation they are in so "they're not going to be able to track and pay attention as carefully and this can make you potentially prone to accepting suggestions from officers," Guarnera said.

"You can see this in Melissa Lucio's case. She kind of just regurgitates it back, she says the same thing as they said to her because that's the easiest way out," she explained.  

Mechanic agreed, describing dissociation as a coping mechanism.

"This is a woman who has a history of being threatened, being yelled at," she said. "If those threats in the interrogation are a trigger and she checks out, it can again be easy for her to just say whatever because she's trying to cope with what feels like a present threat."

Shanda Crain, who was convicted of killing her parents in 1995 in Washington Parish, Louisiana, said in an academic paper that she found similarities between her case and Lucio's. According to The Marshall Project, Crain, who maintains her innocence, wrote that she had flashbacks to her abusive husband when she was being yelled at by a detective. She said she believes she falsely confessed in part because of a learned fear of violence.

Attempts to reach Crain were unsuccessful.

Trauma-informed interviewing

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, a Virginia-based association for police leaders, has a guide on the best practices law enforcement should follow for successful trauma-informed interviewing. Among the tips is to make the victim feel safe, arrange for an advocate to be present in the room, express compassion and not interrupt the victim. 

The Office of Justice Programs, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice that focuses on crime prevention through research and development, said in a published report on interviewing domestic violence victims that detectives should "give credibility to the victim without expecting a high level of cooperation."

Guarnera said these are excellent tips to follow, but pointed out that detectives often do the opposite when they believe someone is a suspect and not a victim. 

"I think there's this thought or belief that if we give up the accusatory, guilt-presumptive, coercive style of American interrogations, it'll have bad consequences and we won't be able to convict people," she said. 

Guarnera said she believes a practice used by police in Europe, called the Peace model, would help people in situations similar to Lucio's.

The model was developed with the help of psychologists and takes a nonconfrontational approach to interrogations. Detectives by law are also not allowed to lie to suspects. Andy Griffiths, a former senior investigating officer with the U.K. police, wrote in a 2012 article that the Peace model trains officers to focus on "probing a suspect's account" instead of trying to force a confession.  

"There are already police departments around the world who have this more investigatory, fact-finding model," Guarnera said. "You're not making this firm division between a victim and suspect … because a lot of times you don't know at the beginning who's a victim and who's a suspect."

As Lucio's case hangs in the balance, a group of bipartisan Texas lawmakers led by Republican Rep. Jeff Leach is pleading with Gov. Greg Abbott and other elected officials to stop her execution. On Wednesday, they visited Lucio at Mountain View Unit in Gatesville.

"We promised #MelissaLucio and her family we'd do everything we can do to prevent this irreversible injustice from taking place later this month," Leach wrote Thursday on Twitter. "And we intend on keeping that promise."