Texas woman’s last-minute reprieve on death row draws questions about wrongful convictions

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution for 52-year-old Melissa Lucio, a woman who had been set to be the first Hispanic woman put to death by the state in modern history after being convicted of beating her 2-year-old daughter to death in 2007. Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, which is representing Lucio, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, today, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution for 52-year-old Melissa Lucio, who had been set to be the first Hispanic woman put to death by the state in modern history.

    It was a big win for advocates who argued that Lucio was wrongly convicted and that her case represents larger problems with the criminal justice system.

    Amna Nawaz reports.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In 2007, Melissa Lucio was the mother of 12 children, pregnant with twins and struggling to provide for them. While moving from one home to another, her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah, died. Lucio says that, two days before, Mariah fell down a steep flight of stairs at their former house.

    Authorities suspected abuse and immediately began interrogating her after her daughter's death.

  • Man:

    You need to tell us right now what exactly happened. This is your chance to set it straight, because, right now, it looks like capital murder. Right now, it looks like you're a cold-blooded killer.

    Now, are you a cold-blooded killer?

  • Melissa Lucio, Defendant:

    No, I'm not.

  • Man:

    Or were you a frustrated mother who just took it out on her for whatever reason?

  • Melissa Lucio:

    No.

  • Man:

    It's got to be one, one or the other.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    She denied wrongdoing over 100 times but, after five hours of aggressive questioning, eventually told police — quote — "I guess I did it."

    That was used as a confession at her trial, along with testimony that Mariah's intake injuries indicated abuse. Lucio was convicted of murder in 2008 and sentenced to death. Yet, since her conviction, many have raised questions about her confession being coerced, her trauma as a survivor of sexual and domestic abuse and how that may have played into that confession, and the use of junk science and misleading evidence at her trial.

    Investigators eventually found head trauma in Mariah consistent with the kind of fall from the stairs Lucio described. Lucio's adult children said she never abused them and have been pleading for clemency. A bipartisan group of more than 100 Texas lawmakers asked for her execution to be stopped, along with five of her original jurors.

    In the 14 years in conviction, Lucio has always maintained her innocence.

    And just this afternoon, Texas' Court of Criminal of Appeals granted Lucio that stay just two days before she was set to die by lethal injection.

    Joining me now to discuss Melissa Lucio's case is Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at The Innocence Project, which is representing Lucio.

    Vanessa, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for joining us.

    I want to begin with that news this afternoon. When you heard that stay had been granted, essentially halting the execution for the time being, what was your reaction?

  • Vanessa Potkin, The Innocence Project:

    Well, that news was the best that we could have expected, because clemency would have turned Melissa's sentence into essentially a life sentence.

    But what the state did today is put a halt on her execution, so that we could go back to the trial court, and the new evidence of her innocence could be litigated. No court has ever considered the new evidence, the new scientific, the new medical evidence supporting her innocence claim.

    So this really opens the door to her conviction being vacated, to a new trial. We are very confident that, given the compelling evidence of her innocence, if this case was tried today, she would be acquitted.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, give us a sense of what happens next now.

    As you mentioned, it goes back to the district court. As you also mentioned, some of that new evidence will now be considered. How quickly could that all move?

  • Vanessa Potkin:

    Well, the process will probably take several months.

    It's hard to completely anticipate. There are some issues that need to be resolved. The district attorney's office has a conflict of interest. The judge, considering the case likely has to be recused. And so we need to sort out how this hearing will take place.

    But we will be going back to the trial court to have a hearing. The court of criminal appeals directed that four of Ms. Lucio's claims be heard, her actual innocence, the state's use of false testimony at her trial, the new scientific evidence of her innocence, and the fact that favorable evidence was withheld by the prosecution at her original trial.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We did see a statement from Melissa Lucio today. I want to share just a part of it.

    She said — quote — "I'm grateful the court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in my heart today and always. I am deeply grateful to everyone who has prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf."

    Vanessa Potkin, I want to ask you about how you came to be involved in this case, because I wonder, early on, when you first heard about it, what specifically jumped out to you? What told you something might be wrong here that was worth your attention?

  • Vanessa Potkin:

    Well, The Innocence Project became involved in Melissa's case just 100 days ago, so relatively recently, after her execution date was set.

    And we had heard of Melissa's case from another one of our clients, Darlie Routier, who's on death row with Melissa. And if you just think about that, there are six women on Texas' death row. Two of them, The Innocence Project is representing. Two out of the six have credible innocence claims.

    And we heard about Melissa's case. We started to look into it. And Melissa's case has two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions at its core, a false incriminating statement that came from coercive interrogation. One out of three people proven innocent by DNA testing falsely confessed during custodial interrogation to crimes they were completely innocent of.

    And false and misleading scientific evidence is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. About half of wrongful convictions that have been overturned with DNA evidence have involved some type of faulty forensics.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about her own history of domestic and sexual abuse? How does that factor into this?

  • Vanessa Potkin:

    Well, it's really egregious that not only was she the victim of childhood sexual abuse and trauma, and she had to endure that, and she's a survivor of those experiences, but those experiences were used against her.

    She was judged by paramedics and police who responded to the scene who didn't think that she was acting like a stereotypical mother should, because she was detached, because some of the mechanisms that helped her survive her abuse kicked in and reflected her demeanor. And so that was used against her.

    And it really was a disadvantage in the interrogation. We now know that trauma and a history of abuse is a vulnerability for false confession when these type of coercive interrogation techniques are used.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, you became involved in the case quite recently.

    But, in the minute we have left, I just need to ask you. It's been 14 years since her conviction. Why did it take so long for so many of these details to come out and get the attention they're now getting?

  • Vanessa Potkin:

    Unfortunately, this is the way our criminal justice system works.

    Once you're convicted, it's extraordinarily difficult to overturn a wrongful conviction. And a lot of times, there's triaging going on. You're trying to stop an execution. And the evidence of her innocence, some of it has been there all along. Some of the evidence could have been presented if her defense attorneys had just reached out to the right medical experts.

    But they didn't do it. And so the fact is, is that we're two days away from sending a woman to an execution based on a crime that never even occurred.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at The Innocence Project, speaking with us tonight.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  • Vanessa Potkin:

    Thank you for telling Melissa's story.

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