Melissa Lucio was sentenced to death. The courts will now consider these 4 requests to decide if she gets a new trial.


By Dakin Andone, CNN

Fourteen years after being sent to Texas death row, Lucio de Melissa will finally have the chance to have new evidence of her claims of innocence considered in state court.

Lucio, 53, was due to be executed on Wednesday for capital murder in the 2007 death of her 2-year-old daughter. But two days before that, the The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted him a stay of executiondelaying her death so Lucio’s trial court can determine if she should be granted a new trial.

The mother of 14, her family and her lawyers say she was wrongly convicted for the death of her toddler Mariah. While prosecutors argued at trial that Lucio was an abusive mother who caused the injuries that led to the daughter’s death, Lucio’s attorneys said those injuries were the result of falling down the stairs two days earlier in front of the family’s apartment.

To help decide whether Lucio will get a new trial, the appeals court ordered Lucio’s trial court to consider four of the nine claims she raised in her application for a habeas corpus writ, which requires that a public official shows a valid reason for the detention of a person. .

A trial court judge will consider her request and prosecutors’ response before making a recommendation to the state appeals court, which will decide whether she gets a new trial. It is not known how long the process will take.

“I don’t think there’s a way to predict” whether Lucio will get a new trial based on these four allegations, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit. who takes no position on the death penalty but has criticized the way it is administered.

But “the stay and remand for consideration of these applications is extraordinarily significant,” Dunham added, describing this week’s decision as “an open door, a threshold that needed to be crossed for Melissa Lucio to have her day ahead of the court. “

Here, we’ll break down these four claims and what Lucio and his lawyers are arguing.

Claim 1: No juror would have convicted Lucio without the state’s perjury

The first remand complaint claims that Lucio was convicted based on false testimony from medical experts and state investigators who interviewed Lucio the night his daughter died. (It’s worthless, the legal standard that Lucio’s team sought to meet does not require proof that the state knew this testimony was false, per its habeas petition, only that it gave the jury a false impression.)

At the time of her death, Mariah’s body was covered in bruises ‘in various stages of healing’, her arm had been broken several weeks earlier and she had what authorities believed was a bite mark on her back, documents show. judicial.

According to her lawyers, the authorities decided that Mariah’s injuries were abuse and set out to confirm this theory while ignoring evidence that could prove Lucio’s innocence.

Hours after Mariah’s death, Lucio was questioned by investigators, including a Texas Ranger who testified in Lucio’s trial for the state. He claimed, per the habeas petition, that he knew Lucio was guilty because of her behavior: her head was lowered and she avoided eye contact — signs, he said, of his guilt.

That testimony has since been proven “scientifically baseless and false,” Lucio’s habeas petition states. Quoting a neuroscientist, he says the current scientific consensus is that there is no basis for the idea that certain facial and body movements can reveal someone’s mental state.

The medical examiner who performed Mariah’s autopsy also offered false testimony, according to Lucio’s lawyers.

The medical examiner – who determined blunt force trauma was the cause of Mariah’s death – learned that Lucio had confessed to child abuse. This knowledge, according to Lucio’s habeas request, “corrupted” the autopsy and its findings, and the medical examiner failed to review other parts of Mariah’s medical history, including her difficulty walking and her documented history of falls due to turned foot.

At trial, the medical examiner said the injuries could only have been caused by abuse, pointing out during his testimony the severe bruises on Mariah’s body, a broken arm several weeks before her death and alleged bite marks on his back.

But Lucio’s lawyers, citing medical experts, offered other explanations for the injuries: Mariah showed signs of a blood-clotting disorder which can lead to severe bruising, they say, and a broken arm is not uncommon in toddlers, especially those with a history of falls.

Common causes of the blood disease are head trauma — such as that suffered when falling down a steep staircase — and infection, which Mariah appears to have battled when she died, the habeas petition says. And the evidence and analysis of the bite marks has since been deemed “invalid and unreliable”, he says, noting that forensic odontologists have found expert testimony identifying injuries as a bite mark. human “without scientific basis”.

As a result, the testimony of these witnesses was false, argue Lucio’s lawyers, entitling him to compensation.

CNN has reached out to prosecutors, the Texas Rangers and the medical examiner for comment.

Claim 2: New scientific evidence would prevent the conviction of Lucio

Lucio’s second claim that the trial court will consider argues that previously unavailable scientific evidence would have prevented a jury from convicting Lucio.

As part of this claim, Lucio’s attorneys are also working to overturn his alleged confession.

Lucio was convicted, in part, they say, based on statements she gave to authorities during an hour-long “presumed guilt” interrogation on the night her daughter died. These vague indications that she was responsible for some of Mariah’s injuries – but not an admission of guilt in her death, they say – were nevertheless presented at trial as confessions.

But Lucio’s statements bear the hallmarks of a false confession, they say, citing two experts – something Lucio’s second claim argues she was particularly prone to give because of her history as a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Lucio’s legal team said she denied hurting Mariah more than 100 times during her interrogation. But after hours of questioning, they say, she “rehearsed” the language suggested by the interrogators, then demonstrated the alleged abuse on a doll at the interrogators’ instructions, the habeas petition states.

Lucio was particularly susceptible to pressure from investigators given his “lifetime history of trauma.” This, too, his lawyers say, is new evidence that was not available at the time of his trial, and his jury did not hear expert testimony about the false confession.

If they had, her lawyers say, she probably wouldn’t have been convicted.

Claim 3: Evidence shows that Lucio is innocent

This claim argues that, taken together, the evidence presented by Lucio’s team and the expert reports “collectively disprove every element of the charge against Ms. Lucio,” her habeas petition states.

Given the evidence, much of which is described above, no “rational juror would have found Ms. Lucio guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”, it says. And executing an innocent person would violate the Eighth and 14th Amendments, their due process rights, and amount to cruel and unusual punishment, he says.

Claim 4: State suppressed evidence favorable to Lucio’s defense

The final request returned to the trial court for review alleges that prosecutors suppressed evidence that would have helped Lucio by not sharing it with his defense attorney, further undermining his conviction and violating his due process rights.

This evidence included information from a Child Protective Services investigator who had interviewed some of Lucio’s other children, who corroborated Mariah’s fall and deteriorating health and dismissed allegations of abuse by their mother.

Lucio’s lawyers also allege that Mariah’s siblings’ statements to the police were suppressed: rather than providing Lucio’s defense attorney with their affidavits, prosecutors gave the defense summaries which “omitted” potentially exculpatory information, the habeas petition states.

According to the document, this allegedly suppressed evidence would have shown: the authorities knew that there were witnesses who had declared that Lucio had not abused his children; there were other family members aware that Mariah had fallen down the stairs; and Mariah had shown no signs that her arm had been injured in the weeks leading up to her death, among other things.

Stay of execution sends message, expert says

While the stay of execution is “very good news” and “critical” for Lucio, “it’s not a guarantee of any particular outcome,” Dunham told CNN.

But it sends a message “that the courts need to pay more attention to matters of innocence,” he said, pointing not only to Lucio but also Rodney Reed, another Texas death row inmate. who also claimed his innocence and whose case will be heard by the Supreme Court.

“I hope the message is that we shouldn’t deprive potentially innocent people of their day in court,” the director of the Death Penalty Information Center said.

As for Lucio, his lawyers recognize that there is still a long way to go. But they’re optimistic: Monday’s decision “opens the door to the possibility of a new trial,” said Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, “and ultimately a full vindication.”

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