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A Texas mother convicted of murdering her 2-year-old child has been granted a stay of execution just two days before she was scheduled to die.
Melissa Lucio, 53, was sentenced to die by lethal injection for the 2007 death of her daughter, Mariah, which police and prosecutors attributed to a beating at the hands of her mother. Following appeals from Lucio’s family and criminal justice activists, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has decided that the she will not be executed on April 27, as announced by the Innocence Project.
Instead, the 138th Judicial District Court of Cameron County will be asked consider new evidence that could potentially point to Lucio’s innocence.
“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 released by the organization. “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," she added. "I will use my time to help bring them to Christ. I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf.”
Many of Lucio’s numerous supporters -— including celebrities such as Kim Kardashian — have voiced their belief that Mariah was injured as a result of accidentally falling down a flight of stairs while the family was moving out of their Harlingen apartment, as reported by The Dallas Morning News. The toddler died two days later.
As previously reported, Lucio repeatedly denied beating Mariah to death more than 100 times while in police custody.
In a 266-page application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus filed with the court of appeals on April 15, attorneys called Lucio’s conviction a “systematic failure, producing a train of injustice.” Lucio’s post-conviction defense noted the federal conviction of the former District Attorney Armando Villalobos in the case, who was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison for bribery and extortion, according to the Brownsville Herald.
The court filing claims “new evidence shows that Ms. Lucio was convicted for a crime that never occurred.”
The court of appeals reviewed nine reasons listed in Lucio’s application, ruling that four of them were grounds for a stay of execution. Those four reasons included the defendant’s claims of false testimony by the prosecution, previously unavailable scientific evidence, actual innocence and the prosecution’s suppression of favorable evidence.
“Applicant's execution is stayed pending resolution of the remanded claims,” the court of criminal appeals ruled.
One of Lucio’s attorneys, Capital Habeas Unit Chief of the Federal Defender for the Western District of Texas Tivon Schardl, made a statement through the Innocence Project following the decision to delay Lucio’s execution. He thanked the “hundreds of thousands of Texans and people around the U.S. and the world who advocated for Melissa.”
“We know that Melissa’s children — Mariah’s brothers and sisters — and Mariah’s grandparents, aunts and uncles are all relieved and grateful that Melissa’s life will not be taken by the State of Texas,” said Schardl. “And we believe the court honored Mariah’s memory because Melissa is innocent.”
A chorus of supporters, including 83 Texas legislators, have fought to prove Lucio’s innocence, hoping to utilize new scientific evidence that could show that, though Mariah did die of blunt force trauma, it was not at the hands of her mother.
“It would have shocked the public’s conscience for Melissa to be put to death based on false and incomplete medical evidence for a crime that never happened,” said one of Lucio’s attorneys, Vanessa Potkin.
According to the post-conviction application, attorneys also claimed that opinion testimony surrounding a bite mark found on Mariah’s body was invalid. Lucio previously admitted to spanking and biting her child but denied any role in the head injury resulting in Mariah’s death.
“All of the new evidence of her innocence has never before been considered by any court,” Potkin continued. “The court’s stay allows us to continue fighting alongside Melissa to overturn her wrongful conviction.”
If eventually executed, Lucio would be the first Latina to be put to death in modern-day Texas.
More than 30 advocacy groups representing the Latinx community — including the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators — have vociferously appealed for a new trial. Other groups, including those supporting survivors of domestic violence, also voiced support for Lucio their petitions.
“As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and intimate partner violence — and now locked away for these past 15 years — Melissa’s voice and experiences have never been valued,” Professor Sandra Babcock, director of the Cornell Center of the Death Penalty Worldwide who is also representing Lucio, said. “The court’s decision signals its willingness to finally hear Melissa’s side of the story.”
Jason Flom, a criminal justice advocate who's been involved in the case said he's "deeply relieved that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has acknowledged that there is compelling new evidence in the case of Melissa Lucio. This evidence was never presented in court and I am hopeful that now that this case has been remanded, a jury will finally see that Melissa is in fact an innocent woman. There is a lot more work ahead, but today is a huge step forward in our fight for justice for Melissa!"
It will ultimately be up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to decide whether or not Lucio will have a new trial, pending legal proceedings for a county court to hear the new evidence.
“The people of Texas are entitled to a new, fair trial,” Schardl continued in his statement. “Texans should be grateful and proud that the Court of Criminal Appeals has given Melissa’s legal team the opportunity to present the new evidence of Melissa’s innocence to the Cameron County District Court.”
In a separate release on Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles said they would not be recommending clemency due to the appeal court’s decision.
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