NEW YORK – Soon after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution for death row inmate Melissa Lucio on April 25, the bishops of Texas both commended her religious conversion, and lamented a flawed justice system that resulted in a “dubious” conviction.
Lucio was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah.
“Since her imprisonment 14 years ago for the death of her daughter Mariah, Melissa Lucio has become a new person in Christ. Her conversion is a profound witness to the power of God’s love and mercy,” the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops said in a statement.
“We are grateful she has the opportunity to continue her personal conversion and to heal relationships with her children and grandchildren, relationships that have been strained by her imprisonment and the circumstances of her life,” the statement continued.
On Feb. 17, 2007, paramedics were dispatched to the home of Lucio where they found Mariah unresponsive on the living room floor. Her body was covered in bruises in various stages of healing, her arm had been broken for several weeks, she had a bite mark on her back, and some of her hair pulled out. She was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
Lucio told paramedics that Mariah “fell down the stairs,” and she was taken in by police for questioning. The interrogation lasted more than five hours – from before 10 p.m. to after 3 a.m., according to court documents. Lucio admitted that she spanked her daughter, which caused bruises. She also admitted to causing the bite mark on Mariah, but she denied punching her daughter, causing the scratches on Mariah’s face, or hitting her on the head.
Eventually, over the hours-long interrogation Lucio admitted, “I’m responsible for it.”
The State of Texas charged Lucio with capital murder. The forensic pathologist who performed Mariah’s autopsy testified that the child had been beaten, saying “this is a battered child.” He argued that Mariah died from blunt force trauma to the head. The emergency doctor who tried to revive Mariah testified that this was the “absolute worst” case of child abuse that he had seen in his decades long career.
However, in the years since Lucio’s conviction she and her attorneys have insisted on her innocence. Her clemency petition states that she ended up on death row “through a horrific combination of investigative missteps and a prosecution unhinged from the truth.”
It highlights that new forensic evidence shows that Mariah’s death was consistent with an accidental fall down the stairs, and that over the five-hour interrogation Lucio denied hurting her daughter more than 100 times, “but interrogators refused to accept any response that was not an admission of guilt” and “coerced” her confession. It also emphasizes that by all accounts Lucio “was a loving mother who never abused her children, as the children themselves told police.”
In the April 25 stay of Lucio’s execution, the appellate court ordered the trial court to consider four of the nine claims Lucio raised in her habeas application: The argument that the State used false testimony, that there’s new scientific evidence to be considered, her innocence claim, and that the State suppressed “favorable, material evidence.”
Lucio – a mother of 14 – thanked God first after the news of the stay on her execution.
“I thank God for my life. I have always trusted Him. I am grateful the court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence,” Lucio said in a statement. “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.”
Catholic leaders, who days earlier spoke out against the execution of 78-year-old Carl Buntion, were grateful for the court’s decision to issue a stay.
“Her case captured the nation’s interest because it reminds us that all human life is endowed with an inviolable dignity, and should never be taken by the state,” said Catholic Mobilizing Network, an organization that advocates against the death penalty in a statement. “This is why the Catholic Church calls the death penalty ‘inadmissible’ in all cases.”
Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist, posted the news on social media with the caption “Alleluia!”
Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, said in a statement that creating a less violent, more peaceful world requires “that we continue to foster a sense of justice that does not include the taking of lives. Let us pray and work for an end to the death penalty.”
The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops focused its statement on systemic flaws.
“We continue to pray for Melissa Lucio, her family, her community, and all who have been affected by the devastating loss of Mariah,” the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops statement said. “May Melissa’s story be a catalyst for our civic leaders to consider more deeply the need for reform of our laws and practices regarding criminal justice.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg