A few months ago, in that blurry haze of new motherhood, I left my infant daughter Eureka on the couch for just a few seconds. She rolled and slipped and tumbled to the floor, hitting her head, then burst out crying. I held her against my chest, crying myself, trying to calm her, feeling like the worst mother in the world. My mom reassured me that I’d hit my own head in the exact same way more than once. And sure enough, Eureka was fine. Not even a bruise. It’s a rite of passage, I learned, the first time your child falls, that first moment of parental negligence, that first jolt of unexpected pain that shocks them (and you) into tears. But an hour later, they’re okay and you’re okay, and life goes on. Unless it doesn’t. Unless you’re Melissa Lucio, whose daughter died from just such an accident, whom the state of Texas plans to execute on April 27th for a crime that never even occurred.
I’ve just returned from the annual Innocence Network Conference, a gathering of exonerees, innocence lawyers, forensic experts, and advocates. This year, over 200 exonerees attended, representing over 6000 years of wrongful imprisonment. The first time I attended the conference, I had to be dragged there by my mother. It was 2014, I was free and living in Seattle, but I had just been reconvicted in absentia. I was fearing extradition, watching my life evaporate before my eyes, again. I felt so utterly alone, like no one could possibly understand what I was going through. That’s when the director of the Idaho Innocence Project, Greg Hampikian, a DNA scientist who had advocated for my release, convinced my mother that I had to attend the conference, which was taking place in Portland that year. The last place I wanted to go was a room full of people who would know my name, who would recognize my face. Paparazzi were still staking out my house, following me to school. I was so used to hiding. But my mother insisted.
There in the basement of a hotel conference center, with its gaudy carpet and sterile lighting, I stood before the double doors to the ballroom, shaking. My mother gently guided me in, and immediately two men ran up to me. They could see the fear on my face. Did I even belong there? Legally, I was still a convicted killer, not an exoneree. They hugged me, and one of them said, “You don’t have to explain a thing, little sister. We know.” I cried in their embrace. These were men who’d each spent over a decade in prison for crimes they hadn’t committed. By the end of that weekend, I had a new family. A family that was mostly men, men who’d lived hard lives before their wrongful convictions, many of them men of color. But the women I met there, women like Sabrina Butler and Kristine Bunch, shook me, for they had been accused of killing their own children. They had not been allowed to grieve the deaths of their babies, so quickly had the state turned on them, shoved them into a cell.
When men are wrongfully convicted, there’s usually an obvious crime, blood and trauma, a grieving victim’s family. The police and prosecutors just got the wrong person, and somewhere out there, the real rapist or killer may be causing more harm. But when women are wrongfully convicted, in nearly 70% of cases it’s for crimes that never occurred — deaths by accident, disease or suicide, and in nearly a third of cases, it’s for the deaths of their own children or children in their care. With women, most often, the grieving family is their own.
Melissa Lucio’s life was difficult from the start. She grew up poor in Lubbock, Texas. From the age of six, she was sexually abused by two adult male relatives. At sixteen, she became a child bride to escape her abusive household, but wound up with a husband who was violent towards her, and who eventually abandoned her with five children. Her next husband was no better. He repeatedly choked and raped her, and threatened to kill her. Melissa Lucio’s entire life, she had been the victim of abuse. And when she finally escaped that second husband, she was kidnapped into the abusive arms of the state of Texas.
It was February 15, 2007. Her two-year-old daughter Mariah, who had a mild disability and was prone to tripping, fell down the stairs. But after that tumble, she seemed fine. It was two days later when Mariah went down for a nap and never woke up. That night, detectives brought Melissa into the interrogation room and she confessed to killing her daughter — so the state would have you believe. A jury did believe it, and sentenced Melissa Lucio to death.
Despite the prevalence of false confessions in wrongful convictions (1 in 4 proven DNA exonerations involves a false confession), and the growing body of research by experts like Saul Kassin, most people have trouble believing they happen, and most jurors find confessions to be very compelling evidence. It’s natural to think, “I would never confess to something I didn’t do.” I certainly thought that before I found myself in an interrogation room. I’ve written about my own coerced false admission many times, trying to understand it myself and to educate others about how innocent people can be pressured to implicate themselves. The more vulnerable they are, the easier it is for police to do so. In my case, I was 20, alone in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, being interrogated in a foreign language. My roommate had just been senselessly and brutally murdered, the killer was on the loose, and I had no one to turn to for help. No one but the police. And over 53 hours in five days, they broke me.
Melissa Lucio was vulnerable, too. She had long been a victim of sexual abuse and violence, which research has shown makes people more likely to succumb to coercive pressure to confess. She was also pregnant, her youngest child had just died, and while struggling with that sudden loss, she was accused of murder. Her interrogators kept her up until 3 am. They used techniques known to elicit false confessions. They minimized the seriousness of her situation, while also exaggerating the strength of the evidence they had against her, essentially lying to her. Most people don’t realize that police are allowed to lie to you in the interrogation room. Reform advocates are fighting against this practice, which police want to maintain because they believe it helps them secure confessions. The problem is, those confessions are unreliable. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say. After five hours of psychological abuse, Melissa Lucio did what many people do in that situation: she said whatever they wanted her to say to get out of that room. “I guess I did it.”
At trial, DA Villalobos presented Lucio as a child abuser, despite thousands of pages of records from CPS and interviews with her children which affirmed the opposite. (That DA was later convicted of bribery and extortion, and is currently serving a 13-year sentence). Her defense attorney hardly mounted a defense, and later joined the D.A.’s office. The jury was barred from hearing any evidence about Lucio’s history of abuse, and how that would affect her reaction to an aggressive interrogation. The state didn’t need to present any physical evidence that she had killed her daughter, or any witness testimony showing her to be a child abuser. That confession, as it often is in such cases, was enough. She was sent to death row, where she has been for the last 14 years.
There’s now a glimmer of hope that Lucio’s life may be spared. After the 2020 documentary, The State of Texas vs Melissa, after years of advocacy from the Innocence Project and a coordinated campaign these last few months to #SaveMelissaLucio, with Kim Kardashian raising awareness, with support from the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, with now five of the twelve jurors expressing doubts about the verdict, and bipartisan majority of the Texas state House calling for clemency, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz has said that if the Texas Appeals court or Governor Greg Abbott doesn’t stay Lucio’s execution, “ I will do what I have to do to stop it.” Meaning, he would withdraw his request for an execution date, something he could do right now if he really wanted to. Even so, clemency likely doesn’t mean freedom for Lucio, but merely reprieve from death.
As I write this, there is still no guarantee that those with the power to stop this execution actually will do so. And even if they do, merely refraining from killing Melissa Lucio will not be justice. Justice, at the least the beginning of justice, would be an exoneration and immediate release from custody. Justice would be seeing Melissa at next year’s Innocence Network Conference, where she would find, as I did, that she isn’t alone.
This past weekend, I met several new exonerees who had survived the same devastating trauma Melissa Lucio is still going through. Surprisingly, they were men accused of killing their infant children, men who had falsely confessed in the throes of grief. I had my daughter Eureka with me at the conference, and I was hesitant in approaching these men — for their sake, not hers. One of them very explicitly kept his distance from young children — the trauma was too fresh. The other was overjoyed to hold her, but in that same moment, Eureka smiling inches from his face, I watched a deep sadness well up in him. It was a sadness for his own child he’d never had a chance to properly grieve; a sadness for his own fatherhood, which had been cut short by a tragic accident; a sadness for what could have been, before the state imprisoned him for 17 years. I passed Eureka to my husband and gave him a long hug. I wish I could do the same for Melissa Lucio. I wish I could meet her on the other side of those double doors in a hotel ballroom and welcome her to our exoneree family, and say, “You don’t have to explain a thing, sister. We know.”