HOUSTON (Nexstar/AP) — A group of bipartisan Texas lawmakers visited a death row inmate whose execution they are trying to stop amid doubt about whether she fatally beat her 2-year-old daughter.
State Reps. Jeff Leach and Joe Moody on Wednesday led a group of lawmakers to the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas, where the state houses women on death row, and visited Melissa Lucio.
Leach described his visit with Lucio as “very powerful.”
“The legislators made a commitment to her in that room that we’re going to do everything possible within our power to stop her execution,” Moody said.
Lucio was convicted of capital murder for the 2007 death of her daughter, Mariah. Prosecutors said Mariah was the victim of child abuse, and there is no evidence that would acquit Lucio of her daughter’s death. Her attorneys said she’s innocent, and jurors never heard evidence that would have acquitted her.
Many of Lucio’s supporters argue she was coerced into giving a false confession. After hours of intense interrogation, Lucio admitted to being responsible for her daughter’s bite and bruise marks but maintained her death was a result of an accidental fall down the stairs.
“It violates your right against self-incrimination if it wasn’t voluntary but also if it’s coerced,” said Baylor Law assistant professor Rachel Kincaide on the confession. “Who knows whether it’s true or not. That’s the real question that we’re trying to get at here.”
Kincaid believes Lucio shouldn’t be executed based on her confession alone. She said Lucio’s emotional state and history as a victim of abuse made her especially vulnerable to psychological tactics often used during interrogation.
“We know that a survivor of lifelong trauma like this is especially likely to be able to be coerced by authority figures in this scary context when she’s interrogated at length,” Kincaid said.
A false confession played into the conviction of 12% of people released and cleared from prison, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. While Texas lawmakers don’t hold the authority in this case, Kincaid said they can pursue further legislative change.
“This definitely should be a moment of clarity for the legislature about, what protections do we need to make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen going forward?” Kincaid said.
Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston was also part of the bipartisan lawmakers who visited Lucio on Wednesday.
More than half of the Texas House signed a letter asking the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to intervene in Lucio’s execution. The bipartisan group has support from those both for and against the death penalty, Moody said.
“They signed it saying you should never execute someone when there’s a question of their guilt,” Moody said. “That is an unacceptable result, even if you’re a proponent of the death penalty.”
The representatives described their experience with Lucio as deeply emotional and moving. Hull, who prayed with Lucio, said she radiated hope, love and strength.
“I really hope that her case gives everyone great pause on the issue of the death penalty,” Hull said. “She is not the only possibly innocent man or woman that has either been on death row or has been executed in the past.”
Texas has the highest number of executions in the nation at 573.
Lucio’s fate ultimately lies in the hands of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor. The board could recommend reprieving Lucio’s execution or commuting her sentence to life in prison, and Gov. Greg Abbott could choose to deny or accept. If not, Abbott could delay Lucio’s execution by a maximum of 30 days.
“The law requires the governor must wait for a decision from the Board of Pardon and Paroles,” Abbott said. “I’ll make a decision once it comes to me.”
Lucio’s execution is scheduled for April 27, and the board will take a vote as late as two days prior.
The House Committee on Criminal Justice Reform, chaired and vice-chaired by Leach and Moody, will meet on Tuesday to discuss legislation around the death penalty, with a laser focus on Lucio’s case. Moody said lawmakers are inviting testimony from the Cameron County, where her case originated.