Calls are growing for Texas to stop the approaching execution of Melissa Lucio, who says she was wrongfully convicted of killing her toddler Mariah in 2007. We speak to one of Lucio’s attorneys, Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, who says Lucio was coerced into making a false confession within hours of her daughter’s death and deserves a new trial based on new evidence and misleading expert testimony. There has also been historic bipartisan support for Lucio, with Texas lawmakers demanding Governor Greg Abbott commute her sentence or delay the execution until a new trial can be held.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
One week from today, Texas plans to execute Melissa Lucio for the death of her daughter, despite widespread concern she is innocent. A bipartisan group of over a hundred Texas lawmakers is among those calling to spare Lucio’s life, led in part by Republican state Representative Jeff Leach, who visited Lucio on death row and hosted a hearing on her case.
REP. JEFF LEACH: What you’re going to hear from my colleagues today is a succinct but detailed and very important outline of the problems that we see and that we believe that you will see, the problems that we believe are clearly evident with Melissa Lucio’s case. We — as a conservative Republican myself who has long been a supporter of the death penalty in the most heinous cases, I have never seen — I have never seen — a more troubling case than the case of Melissa Lucio. And the six of us, in conjunction with our House colleagues, and hopefully many more who will join later today and in the days ahead, are asking for the Board of Pardons and Paroles to spare her life.
AMY GOODMAN: Melissa Lucio is a mother of 14 children. She says she was wrongfully convicted of killing her 2-year-old daughter Mariah after a tragic accident in 2007. Police blamed Lucio for Mariah’s death after she called them to say the girl was unresponsive two days after falling down a flight of stairs. Lucio’s lawyers say she faced a lifetime of abuse, was pressured to make a false confession and did not get a fair trial. Attorneys with the Innocence Project have asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to halt her execution in order to review new evidence that could prove Lucio’s innocence. Five of Lucio’s trial jurors now oppose her execution. This is juror Johnny Galvan speaking via his daughter.
JOHNNY GALVAN JR.: [via his daughter] The idea that my decision to take another person’s life was not based on complete and accurate information in a fair trial is horrifying.
AMY GOODMAN: Lucio would be the first Latina woman executed by Texas. She spoke to the Spanish-language news outlet Agencia EFE on Texas death row earlier this month.
MELISSA LUCIO: I’m scared. But I’m scared for my children. I’m scared that nobody is going to be there to support them if this execution goes through. I worry for them. But I know that right now there’s many people who are supporting them, that have encouraged them. And many of my friends have said to me that, you know, if this execution does go through, that they will be there for my children. And I’m very grateful for that.
AMY GOODMAN: Lucio’s children have long claimed she was innocent and are calling for her release. Now some say they’re starting to prepare for the worst. This is Lucio’s eldest son, John.
JOHN LUCIO: I want to see my mom 'til the last minute. I don't want to see my mom die, but if I have to see — I mean, I would like to see her for the last breath.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, one of Melissa Lucio’s attorneys.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you lay out the new evidence that could prove Lucio’s innocence?
VANESSA POTKIN: Thank you for having me.
Yes. It is, you know, quite incredible that here we are seven days away from Ms. Lucio’s scheduled execution, and despite this groundswell of support that you mentioned earlier, there’s nothing, as we sit here today, that’s standing in the way of this execution going forward in seven days. The Innocence Project joined Melissa Lucio’s legal team at the end of January, after her execution date was set. And we had learned about Ms. Lucio’s case and were so disturbed by the fact that her conviction rests on faulty scientific evidence. And we recognized the urgency that an innocent woman was headed to be put to death.
After her trial, the state presented evidence from a medical examiner that the injuries to Mariah, Ms. Lucio’s 2-year-old child, had to come from intentional abuse and had to have happened within 24 hours of when her child died. That testimony completely undermined Ms. Lucio’s defense and what she’s been saying all along, that Mariah fell down the stairs and then increasingly started to get lethargic and sleepy, and then the family was increasingly concerned, and ultimately she just, you know, went unresponsive. That testimony that was presented at her trial was absolutely false. And, in fact, a review of the medical evidence and the autopsy results show that all of the injuries that Mariah incurred were completely consistent with an accidental fall.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you — Vanessa, could you talk about this — her confession, why this was a false confession and how it may have occurred?
VANESSA POTKIN: Absolutely. So, police rushed to judgment. As soon as paramedics responded to the scene, they started to make judgments about Ms. Lucio and about how she was presenting. And it’s egregious, because Ms. Lucio was a victim of sexual abuse as a child and domestic abuse throughout her life, and, you know, some of the way that she presented was directly related to PTSD. And so, not only did she endure these experiences, but then they ended up being used against her when she’s enduring the most unimaginable thing, of her daughter being unresponsive and dying.
Within two hours of her daughter’s death, police had her in an interrogation room. They started berating her, telling her that she had to have done this, she must have been responsible for her child’s death, showing her pictures of her daughter, threatening her, saying she wasn’t going to go to her daughter’s funeral unless she told them what they wanted to hear. Over a hundred times Ms. Lucio asserted her innocence, and police ignored it. They interrupted her. They stopped her. They told her it wasn’t true. And the clear implication was: This interrogation is not going to stop until you tell us what we want to hear. She endured that type of aggressive, coercive, manipulative questioning for over five hours, before ultimately she falsely took responsibility for some of her daughter’s injuries. And then this was used against her at trial as a confession.
Her statements and the interrogation have been reviewed by the world’s leading expert on false confessions and suggestibility and also a certified forensic investigator who trains police officers and law enforcement departments throughout the country on how to conduct interrogations, and both found the statement to be completely unreliable and just a mere regurgitation of what the officers were telling her throughout the interrogation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you argue in the petition that Mariah’s death was declared a murder before the autopsy even began. Could you talk about how police officers may have influenced the coroner, as well?
VANESSA POTKIN: Absolutely. So, what happened here is that after the interrogation, the following day, Mariah’s autopsy was conducted, and two of the officers who interrogated Ms. Lucio were present during the autopsy. And so, the medical examiner went into the autopsy with the knowledge that Ms. Lucio confessed and that the police believed that this was a homicide and Ms. Lucio was responsible and had taken responsibility.
And so, while child abuse is a diagnosis of exclusion, that’s not what happened here. It wasn’t that the medical examiner systematically looked at Mariah’s injuries and tried to determine what were potential causes. For example, Mariah had profound bruising throughout her body, and the medical examiner overlooked or ignored clear signs that Mariah was experiencing what’s called DIC, a coagulation disorder that happens after accidental head trauma quite frequently and causes profound bruising throughout the body. Those indications were clear and present during the autopsy, but the medical examiner ignored it and said the bruising had to come from intentional abuse.
And so, you had a really biased and inadequate autopsy. It wasn’t — we can’t even call it a death investigation, because it wasn’t an investigation; it was a procedure aimed at amassing evidence to support a prosecution of Ms. Lucio at that point.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how significant is it, Vanessa, that you — I mean, you hardly have bipartisanship in this country today, but a bipartisan group of more than 80 members of the Texas House of Representatives, 20 state senators have asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to grant Lucio clemency, coming after a hearing in which they called on the Cameron County DA to cancel her April 27th death date. He testified in the hearing, if Lucio doesn’t get a stay, quote, “I will do what I have to do and stop it.” What does this all mean?
VANESSA POTKIN: Well, right now that means nothing, because he hasn’t done anything and nobody else has done anything to stop this execution going forward. And if the DA wanted to put a pause on this execution so that Ms. Lucio’s evidence of innocence can be fully litigated in courts, he could move for that today. The district attorney has the power to withdraw the execution — to move to withdraw the execution. The district attorney has the power to agree to a stay, a pause of the execution, so that the courts can consider this new evidence of innocence, which no court has ever considered and, as you pointed out, the jurors felt was so relevant that they believe, many of them, that Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial. So, the district attorney could take action right now.
I mean, this bipartisan support that we have from over a hundred members of the Texas Legislature — Republicans, Democrats — it’s unprecedented. You don’t see this. You don’t see bipartisan support. You don’t see legislators stepping out to try to, you know, really make sure an execution doesn’t go forward. And that speaks to the evidence of Ms. Lucio’s innocence and the fact that — doesn’t matter what you think about the death penalty — people do not want to see an innocent person executed. And everyone who has looked at the case, over a hundred state legislators, feel that there is a significant risk that that is going to happen if Ms. Lucio’s execution goes forward.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we have only about a minute, but could you talk about some of the jurors, the five jurors in the original trial who now have grave concerns about evidence that was withheld?
VANESSA POTKIN: Yeah, well, the jurors feel that they were misled, that they didn’t get the full picture. They are speaking out. And I would just encourage people who are watching to go to SaveMelissa.org. You know, people who want to express support can, there, you know, through that, contact Governor Abbott. Ultimately, there’s two ways this execution can stop. One is the Board of Pardons and Paroles can recommend clemency. It will be up to Governor Abbott to make that determination. Or, even without a recommendation from the board, he can grant a reprieve so that the evidence of Ms. Lucio’s innocence can be considered in the courts. And also the Court of Criminal Appeals can issue a stay so that this doesn’t go forward. But right now we’re seven days away from Ms. Lucio’s execution, and, again, nothing is standing in the way, until somebody acts.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to follow this case. Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, one of Melissa Lucio’s attorneys.
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