A woman facing execution in Texas for killing her daughter is begging for clemency, saying she was forced to confess to the crime.
Paramedics were called to the home of Melissa Lucio in Harlingen, Texas on February 17, 2007, after her 2-year-old daughter Mariah Alvarez was found unconscious and not breathing. Lucio told the police that Mariah fell asleep and didn’t wake up.
Lucio said Mariah had fallen down a steep flight of stairs during the family’s move to a new apartment two days prior, but did not appear to be seriously injured, according to court records. Unable to be revived, her daughter was later pronounced dead in hospital.
Hours after Mariah’s death, Lucio was questioned by police for more than five hours, according to his lawyers. She was particularly vulnerable, her lawyers say, as she mourned her daughter, who was pregnant with twins at the time, and suffered abuse and trauma throughout her life.
These conditions led to her being manipulated into admitting that she caused her daughter’s death while Lucio asserted his innocence more than 100 times throughout the interrogation, according to his lawyers.
“I guess I did,” police said, Lucio told them.
Former Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, who is currently serving a 13-year sentence for bribery and extortion in a case unrelated to Lucio’s, called the statement a confession at trial.
After the trial, in which the prosecution said his daughter’s injuries could only have been caused by abuse, Lucio was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death. Her husband and Mariah’s father, Robert Alvarez, was sentenced to four years in prison for child endangerment.
Nearly 15 years later, Lucio, 53, is still on death row at Mountain View Unit prison in Gatesville, Texas. His execution is scheduled to take place on April 27. She would be the first Latina to be executed in the state.
In October, the United States Supreme Court refused to review a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upholding his conviction, clearing the way for his execution.
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization that aims to exonerate those wrongfully convicted using DNA and other evidence, joined Lucio’s legal team shortly after the scheduled date of his execution in January.
“The Innocence Project recognized the urgency that an innocent woman was headed for execution,” Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation for the organization, told ABC News.
Potkin said Lucio’s alleged guilt “was a complete rush to judgment” spurred by misunderstanding, “highly manipulative and coercive” interrogation, and faulty forensics.
“We had his interrogation reviewed by leading experts in interrogation and false confessions. And they found that his statements are completely unreliable, that they are a mere regurgitation of the words that the officers transmitted to him for five hours,” Potkin said.
Lucio’s legal team submitted a clemency petition to Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Board of Pardons and Parole in March of this year, citing an unreliable confession and “false unscientific evidence that inferred the jury misled into believing that Mariah Alvarez must have been killed.” by physical abuse, when the evidence is in fact consistent with a conclusion that Mariah died of medical complications after a fall” based on statements from various experts.
The request also says the state medical examiner who performed Mariah’s autopsy was told that Lucio admitted to abusing the girl and that he was accompanied by two of the officers interviewing him during the autopsy.
A juror in the trial has since expressed concern and regret over the verdict, according to the Innocence Project.
“I think it’s really significant that, you know, the people who heard the evidence against Melissa feel that the new evidence is so powerful that they may have voted differently in the case, and that’s just underscore the need for a court to consider the new evidence of Melissa’s innocence,” Potkin said.
An Innocence Project petition calling for a halt to the execution of Lucio has exceeded its goal, having received over 185,000 signatures.
Abraham Bonowitz, co-founder and director of the death penalty advocacy group Death Penalty Action, said he thinks filmmaker Sabrina Van Tassel’s Hulu documentary, “The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” which follows Lucio as she appeals her case, speaks to her innocence. Death Penalty Action started the Free Melissa Lucio project shortly after Lucio was informed of her execution date.
“Our campaign is called Free Melissa Lucio because we don’t just want to save her, we want her out,” Bonowitz said.
Abbott’s office, the Cameron County District Attorney’s office and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment.
The project’s petition, asking Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz to quash the execution, received more than 44,000 signatures.
“The request is very specific. We are asking the Governor and the Board of Pardons and Parole and the District Attorney, who are the three [political] entities that can do something about it, to watch the movie…because we believe that anyone who watches this movie will come away with at least some doubt if they are not convinced of Melissa’s innocence,” said said Bonowitz.
According to Bonowitz, factors such as ableism and racial and socioeconomic bias in the criminal justice system pose too great a threat to justify the use of the death penalty.
“When you get to that point, you find there’s so many layers that most people aren’t aware of and don’t care about, frankly. They look at who the victim is, what the “The defendant is accused of doing? Have they been convicted? Alright, let’s kill them. And that’s all people want to know,” he said.
“There’s so much more going on long before the crime.”
The Free Melissa Lucio Project has worked closely with John Lucio, the eldest son of Melissa Lucio, as he advocates for his mother’s exoneration.
He expressed emotional support for his mother at a Friday press conference held by the nonprofit civic engagement organization Somos Tejas, Texas State Representative Victoria Neave Criado, and others Texas state lawmakers, saying his family “isn’t the same” since his incarceration.
“My mother is an innocent woman. My mother was never the woman abuser – the monster that former district attorney Armando Villalobos made people believe,” John Lucio said.
“She was a good mother. She wasn’t a perfect mother, but she made sure we took care of ourselves,” he said.
Neave Criado, who visited Melissa Lucio on death row earlier this week, spoke at the conference about the bipartisan support her case has received. Eighty-three Texas officials signed a letter asking for clemency.
“The fact that we are all here today and why nearly 90 state officials, the majority of the House of Texas, have joined this cause to save the life of Melissa Lucio is because of the injustices in her case. It was because of the trauma that she suffered all her life,” she said.
Michelle Lucio, John’s wife who knew Melissa Lucio before her sentencing, recalled conversations with her during their prison visits.
“She gets very emotional because no one believed her for so many years that she was innocent. You know? All she had was us,” she said.
“I don’t want to be in this room on April 27 to see her executed,” Michelle Lucio said.