A Prosecutor Asked Texas to Kill Melissa Lucio. Now He Says She Should Be Freed.

On the night that 2-year-old Mariah Alvarez died, a Child Protective Services investigator made her way to the Harlingen, Texas, police station to interview the toddler’s siblings.

Mariah’s lifeless body had arrived at a local hospital covered in bruises, which authorities immediately assumed were evidence of abuse. Her mother, 38-year-old Melissa Lucio, who had a history of being investigated by the child welfare agency, tried to explain that Mariah had fallen down a flight of stairs. But the police subjected Lucio to a punishing late-night interrogation lasting more than five hours. After repeatedly denying that she killed her daughter, Lucio finally conceded that she was responsible. In 2008, Lucio was convicted of murder and sentenced to die.

The possibility that Mariah’s death was not murder but the result of a tragic accident was never investigated. Police ignored evidence that included a report compiled by the child welfare investigator, Florence Arreola, who interviewed several of Mariah’s siblings while Lucio was being interrogated in another room. The children corroborated their mother’s account, reiterating that Mariah had fallen down the stairs two days earlier. Lucio had never abused Mariah, they said, and the only injuries they saw on the toddler were bruises “from when she fell.”

Jurors at Lucio’s trial never heard these statements. Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos withheld Arreola’s report from the defense, casting Mariah’s death as the violent culmination of “a cruel and brutal life” at the hands of her mother. Despite Lucio’s insistence that she was innocent, the DA’s office spent years defending her conviction, seeking an execution date in 2022. Lucio came within two days of execution before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals intervened, sending the case back to the trial court to consider whether withholding the evidence had violated Lucio’s constitutional rights.

In a dramatic reversal, the DA’s office now admits that Villalobos failed to disclose the exculpatory statements. Today, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz agrees with Lucio’s attorneys that, had the records been disclosed, Lucio likely would not have been convicted. In a joint filing with the attorneys, Saenz told the trial court that Lucio’s conviction should be overturned.

On April 12, two years after Lucio narrowly avoided execution, Cameron County Judge Arturo Nelson signed off on the agreement. The case is now back before the Court of Criminal Appeals, which will decide whether to grant the joint request to vacate Lucio’s conviction. If it does, Lucio will have spent 16 years on death row for a crime that never happened. There is no timeline for the court to rule.

In a statement, Lucio’s family thanked her legal team and the district attorney’s office alike. “We hope and pray the Court of Criminal Appeals will agree with the District Attorney, the defense, and Judge Nelson and our mother can come home to her family. It’s been 17 years that we have been without her. We love her and miss her and can’t wait to hug her.”

Melissa Lucio with five of her children.
Melissa Lucio with five of her children.
Photo: Courtesy of the Lucio family

The case against Melissa Lucio was full of red flags, from a coerced interrogation and reliance on junk forensics to lackluster defense lawyering and prosecutorial misconduct. “I’ve been doing capital defense work in Texas for 30 years,” Sandra Babcock, a Cornell Law School professor who is now part of Lucio’s defense team, told The Intercept in 2022. “And this is by far the weakest capital case I’ve ever seen.”

Lucio was prosecuted by embattled District Attorney Villalobos, who used the case to boost his tough-on-crime reputation as part of his reelection campaign. At the time of Lucio’s 2008 trial, Villalobos was facing corruption charges and a challenger who had taken him to task for failing to prosecute child abuse cases. In the wake of the conviction, Villalobos became known as the man who sent the first Latina woman to Texas’s death row. The district attorney was subsequently sentenced to 13 years in federal prison for racketeering and extortion.

Lucio was represented by defense lawyer Peter Gilman, who had never handled a death penalty case and went on to work at the DA’s office immediately after the trial. A mitigation specialist who worked for Gilman later said that the lawyer had refused to pursue exculpatory evidence that could have saved his client’s life.

A Prosecutor Asked Texas to Kill Melissa Lucio. Now He Says She Should Be Freed. 1


Is Texas Sending Melissa Lucio to Die for a Crime That Never Happened?

The state’s evidence against Lucio went mostly unchallenged until 2010, when veteran forensic pathologist Thomas Young reviewed the medical evidence. Young concluded that there had been a rush to judgment by medical examiner Norma Farley, who told the court that simply upon seeing Mariah’s body, she knew that the child had died from abuse. “This child was severely abused,” Farley told the jury at Lucio’s trial. “I mean, it would have been evident to a first-year nursing student.”

But Farley’s examination didn’t occur until after Lucio had been interrogated for hours and admitted to hurting her daughter, and it was conducted while one of the interrogating officers was present — meaning Farley was already aware of the cops’ theory of the crime before she conducted her review. These factors undoubtedly skewed her conclusions, according to Young, who said such dynamics are all too familiar in forensic pathology. “You develop a belief, and come hell or high water, you’re going to defend your belief,” he told The Intercept. Young found that the fall had likely caused Mariah’s brain to swell, which, left untreated, had cascading physical effects that developed over several days, including a coagulation disorder that caused widespread bruising. In his view, the medical evidence was absolutely consistent with an accidental fall — as Lucio and her family had always insisted. 

Nonetheless, the case flew under the radar until documentarian Sabrina Van Tassel took it up in her 2020 film “The State of Texas v. Melissa.” The film revealed additional evidence that Lucio was telling the truth about the fall that ultimately killed Mariah, including footage of interviews that child welfare counselors conducted with two of Lucio’s sons, both of whom said Mariah had fallen down the stairs. Interviewed for the film, Gilman was dismissive of the notion that the kids could have been crucial witnesses. “I didn’t feel like any of the children would be helpful,” he said.

In the years Van Tassel spent working on the documentary, she became convinced that the evidence the state had provided to Lucio’s defense attorneys was incomplete. A number of Lucio’s children told Van Tassel that they had been interviewed at the police station, yet there was no record of those conversations in the case file. “I knew there were things that were missing,” Van Tassel said.

Nevertheless, the film contained significant revelations that catapulted the case into public view. After Lucio’s 2022 execution date was set, the documentary became a critical organizing tool, fueling a campaign to save Lucio’s life. The group Death Penalty Action held screenings in the Rio Grande Valley and across the state, accompanied by members of Lucio’s family. Outside the DA’s office in Brownsville, activists put up signs in English and Spanish that read “Watch the Film.” At one point, Lucio’s son John approached Saenz, who succeeded Villalobos as district attorney, on his lunch break, urging him to reconsider Lucio’s case. “I know for a simple fact that my mother is an innocent woman,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lucio’s cause attracted a powerful and unlikely ally: North Texas Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach, co-chair of the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. Leach, a self-professed supporter of capital punishment, and his caucus co-chair, Democratic Rep. Joe Moody, rallied an unprecedented level of support for Lucio among an ideologically diverse group of more than 80 state representatives — more than half the members of the Texas House, a body that rarely comes to a decisive consensus about anything.

Leach vowed to do “everything I can … in every way possible” to stop Lucio’s execution. In April 2022, he and Moody convened a committee hearing to question Saenz, who had requested Lucio’s execution date. They implored the district attorney to step up and withdraw it. But Saenz brushed off their concerns, saying he had no reason to ask for the death warrant to be withdrawn.

With Lucio’s execution date looming, her lawyers, including Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation for the Innocence Project, filed a new challenge to Lucio’s conviction before the Court of Criminal Appeals, pointing to the defects in the case and arguing that Lucio was innocent of killing her daughter. It was a long-shot appeal to a court known for its hostility to death row defendants claiming innocence. So it was welcome but startling news when the court issued a last-minute stay of execution, sending Lucio’s claims back to the district court for further vetting. Among the claims was that the state had withheld records from the defense, including the reports from Arreola, the child welfare investigator.

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Melissa Lucio’s Life Was Spared at the Last Minute. What Happens Now?

In a statement following the stay, Saenz said he welcomed the opportunity to prosecute Lucio again. But nine months later, he quietly signed a joint filing with Potkin acknowledging that his office had withheld exculpatory evidence from Lucio’s defense. “There are uncontroverted facts and the parties agree,” the lawyers wrote, that there was a “reasonable probability” that the outcome of the trial “would have been different had the evidence been disclosed.” 

The agreement, which was signed in January 2023, remained out of the public eye until earlier this month, when a local reporter broke the news, including a statement from Potkin and Saenz saying the case was now in the hands of the courts. The Court of Criminal Appeals “is the only court that can vacate a conviction,” the statement read. “We are hopeful that Melissa’s case will be resolved.” A week later, a district court judge signed off on the agreement, sending the case up to the CCA.

Van Tassel got the news in a message from Lucio. “I’m coming home soon, sis!” Lucio said.

“We were just overwhelmed, you know. Overwhelmed with joy,” Van Tassel said. Yet she is cautious not to celebrate prematurely. “Part of me doesn’t want to rejoice too much because we’ve been through so much.” After the exhilaration of the stay of execution, the surge of publicity faded. Lucio sometimes felt forgotten while she waited on a court system that showed no sense of urgency. Lucio’s mother, Esperanza, died last fall, shortly after Lucio herself was hospitalized with abdominal pain. Lucio was unable to attend the funeral. “She died without seeing her daughter again,” Van Tassel said of Esperanza, who had hoped to see Lucio walk free. “How horrible is that?”

Weeks before news broke about the agreement between Lucio’s lawyers and the state, Van Tassel started a GoFundMe in anticipation of Lucio’s release. Her family will need considerable help getting Lucio on her feet as she reacquaints herself with the outside world. Lucio hopes to get a fresh start, perhaps in a different town, where she can rebuild her life from scratch. “I have no clothes,” she told Van Tassel in one recent message. “I don’t even know what size I am.”

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