Texas is scheduled to execute Melissa Lucio next month. The 53-year-old was convicted in 2008 for the murder of her 2-year- old daughter, and would be the first Latina killed by the state if her execution goes as planned.
But many doubt Lucio’s guilt and call into question the fairness of her trial. Now, nearly 90 state representatives are petitioning the state to stop the execution.
Latino USA producer Reynaldo Leaños Jr. has been reporting on Lucio’s case, and tells Texas Standard that her supporters claim Lucio was coerced by law enforcement into making a false confession. Listen to the interview with Leaños Jr. in the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: At the heart of this case is suspicion that Melissa Lucio’s confession might have been coerced. What’s the backstory?
Reynaldo Leaños Jr.: [In an audio recording of her confession], what you can hear already, it’s, like, a very tense and very intense exchange between Melissa [Lucio] and law enforcement. And one of the things that people have also brought up is that it lasted about five hours, and that these law-enforcement officials were using tactics that are known to lead to false confessions and to a coerced confession.
Her lawyers say that the death of her daughter was an accident and that there were even witnesses. What is their side of the story?
At the very beginning of this interrogation, Melissa says that her daughter fell down the stairs about two days prior. And in terms of the witnesses, two of Melissa’s children said that they also saw Melissa’s daughter, Mariah Alvarez, fall down the stairs. What’s important about that is that the children were never allowed to testify in front of a jury to bring that they had also seen this, you know, basically corroborating what Melissa had said had initially caused her daughter’s death.
You have also reported about how Lucio had been abused, and some have wondered how that might have contributed to her mental state at the time she was arrested.
There’s been independent experts who have looked at this, and they have said that because of her past abuse with sexual assault and sexual violence against her that that led her to basically shut down, that these were symptoms of PTSD, and that’s also another reason why she might have just given in during the interrogation.
There’s another layer to this case: possible corruption in the courthouse. What’s the backstory there?
The DA at the time was District Attorney Armando Villalobos for Cameron County, and this is a man who eventually was found guilty of bribery and extortion. And so one of the concerns was how a lot of that might have filtered into Melissa’s case.
And in the documentary [about Melissa Lucio], one of the U.S. attorneys who prosecuted Armando Villalobos suggested or said that he had overseen several death-penalty cases, and that each of them should be investigated because there was a lot of corruption happening at that time. And Melissa’s first attorney, Peter Gilman, ended up working for Armando Villalobos shortly after Melissa’s trial.
A bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers are now weighing in on Lucio’s behalf. What happens next?
It’s been very interesting to see the momentum pick up in the last couple of days, even the last couple of weeks. And basically right now, it’s the waiting game. But when I talked to Melissa’s defense, they basically said that with this case, now that it’s getting a lot of attention, something from the governor or from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles could come at any moment. So basically, we’re just, like, in limbo, and we’re just waiting to see what happens with their clemency filing.