March 5 2022, 8:05 a.m.
DR. THOMAS YOUNG is adamant: Melissa Lucio should not be put to death.
“This would be a horrible, horrible tragedy if she ends up getting executed over this,” he said. “It’s just not right.”
Young is a veteran forensic pathologist and the former chief medical examiner in Kansas City, Missouri. For years he has sounded the alarm about forensic science practices that lead to wrongful convictions, with a focus on faulty inferences in death investigations. He said that’s exactly what happened in Lucio’s case.
Lucio has been on Texas’s death row since 2008 for killing her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. According to the state, Lucio repeatedly abused the toddler until she finally succumbed to her injuries. The problem, says Young, who first reviewed the case at the behest of Lucio’s post-conviction attorney, is that the medical examiner who conducted Mariah’s autopsy, and then offered unequivocal trial testimony that blamed Lucio for her daughter’s death, got it wrong. That pathologist, Young said, appears to have jumped to conclusions while ignoring evidence that pointed toward Mariah’s death being the result of an accident.
“You develop a belief and come hell or high water you’re going to defend your belief,” Young said. This happens all too often in forensic pathology and forensic science in general, he added.
The state’s case against Lucio was weak but ultimately devastating. Instead of conducting an investigation into what happened to Mariah, police in the Rio Grande Valley city of Harlingen hauled Lucio in for a marathon interrogation the night her child died and aggressively pushed her to confess. Jurors at her trial were shown a video of the more than five-hour confrontation and heard from cops who insisted that Lucio wasn’t behaving like a grieving mother. They were also shown numerous photos of Mariah’s body, which was horribly bruised. The pathologist, Dr. Norma Jean Farley, said there was no doubt that Mariah was a battered child.
Meanwhile, the defense failed to call witnesses who could have questioned the state’s assumptions about Mariah’s death or offered an alternative explanation for her injuries.
Farley did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment, nor did Peter Gilman, Lucio’s lead attorney at trial.
The case came at a pivotal time for embattled Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, who used Lucio’s trial to boost his tough-on-crime reputation as part of his reelection campaign. The DA, who would go on to win that November, would be known as the man who sent the first Latina woman to Texas’s death row.
Lucio’s case is an example of the kind of rush to judgment that often follows the untimely death of a child. A parent or caretaker perceived to be unfit can easily turn into a criminal suspect; authorities are especially quick to judge poor people of color — especially women who are stereotyped as bad mothers.
If Mariah died as the result of an accident, as Young believes, that means Lucio, who has always maintained her innocence, is sitting on death row for a crime that never happened. Since 1989, at least 70 women have been exonerated for murders they did not commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In 31 cases, no crime was ever committed; nearly half of those involved child victims.
“This is by far the weakest capital case I’ve ever seen.”
Lucio’s case also reflects how Texas courts routinely ignore evidence of innocence in order to carry out the death penalty. After Lucio’s conviction was overturned by a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that the trial court violated her right to present a complete defense by barring the testimony of two witnesses, prosecutors successfully appealed, convincing the same court to reinstate Lucio’s conviction in 2021. In January, the state set an execution date of April 27.
With Lucio’s execution date approaching, anti-death penalty organizers have joined her family in the Rio Grande Valley in a campaign to save her life. Activists have held public screenings of a 2020 documentary film about Lucio, “The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” which revealed crucial evidence that was never used at trial. Meanwhile, the Innocence Project is calling on the Cameron County district attorney to withdraw Lucio’s execution date and conduct a review of her case. If the efforts are unsuccessful, Lucio will become the seventh woman executed in Texas and the first in nearly a decade.
“I’ve been doing capital defense work in Texas for 30 years now,” said Sandra Babcock, a Cornell Law School professor and founder of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. “And this is by far the weakest capital case I’ve ever seen.”
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