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Texas court grants stay of execution for Melissa Lucio, convicted of killing 2-year-old daughter

Judge gavel, scales of justice and law books in court (BrianAJackson/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday halted the execution of Melissa Lucio, who stands convicted of beating her 2-year-old daughter to death in 2007 even though it is not clear abuse is what killed her.

A lower court will review her attorneys’ claims that she could be exonerated by new evidence that has come to light since her conviction, The Associated Press reported.

Lucio, 53, had been scheduled to die by lethal injection on Wednesday for the death of her daughter Mariah. Prosecutors said the toddler had been abused, while Lucio’s lawyers maintain that the tot died of injuries sustained in a fall downstairs days earlier.

“I am grateful the court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence,” Lucio said in a statement provided by her lawyers. “Mariah is in my heart today and always. I am grateful to have more days to be a mother to my children and a grandmother to my grandchildren. I will use my time to help bring them to Christ. I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf.”

The appeals court will consider whether false evidence was used to convict her; whether her conviction would have been prevented if scientific evidence that has come to light since then had been available during her trial; will look again at the question of her innocence, and whether prosecutors suppressed evidence that could have helped her defense.

Lucio herself suffered a long history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, starting in her own childhood, conditions that her defense attorneys said made it easier to coerce a false confession when she was brought in two hours after her daughter died. During five hours of intense questioning, Lucio insisted more than 100 times that she was innocent, then eventually said “I guess I did it” when it came to some of her daughter’s injuries, NPR reported.

In fact, as NPR pointed out, the crime may not even have occurred. Lucio was living in a second-floor apartment in Harlingen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley at the time, and the family was packing up to move. Mariah managed to slip out the screen door undetected, and fell down a steep staircase. Family members found her at the bottom, NPR recounted.

While Lucio did not see the girl fall, another sibling testified that he had seen her fall downstairs. The girl did not appear injured beyond a bleeding lip, according to NPR. The jury never heard about the fall, and expert witnesses were not allowed to shed light on the possibility of Lucio’s making a false confession, NPR said.

At least five of the jurors who convicted her 14 years ago have come forward to say that they would have voted differently if the new evidence had been available at the time. Legislators, faith leaders, domestic violence organizations and even celebrities have called for the case to have another look.

“Melissa is entitled to a new, fair trial. The people of Texas are entitled to a new, fair trial,” attorney Tivon Schardl, one of those representing Lucio, said in a statement from the Innocence Project, which has been working to get Lucio exonerated. “Texans should be grateful and proud that the Court of Criminal Appeals has given Melissa’s legal team the opportunity to present the new evidence of Melissa’s innocence to the Cameron County district court.”


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