SAbrina Van Tassel, director of the acclaimed 2020 documentary Texas State vs. Melissawill be the first to tell you that her film has uncovered no new evidence in the case of Melissa Lucio, the death row inmate in Texas who, with the support of the likes of Kim Kardashian, has inspired a nationwide innocence movement.
Rather, the film showed the many red flags in the prosecutor’s office that were always in sight. And for the likes of Melissa Lucio in the justice system—poor Latinos, victims of abuse—even a second look is a rare, radical change from the status quo.
“Melissa would never be where she is if she wasn’t a poor Hispanic woman. That’s a fact,” said Ms. Van Tassel The Independent.
“I didn’t find anything,” she continues. “I’m basically just putting together all these elements that were there for the justice system to see they didn’t look at it. I want the audience to realize that this is what happens when you’re poor. I want people to realize that you don’t find a rich person on death row in America. Why is that? Not only is our system broken, but I think it was designed to put people like Melissa in jail.”
So here are the facts the documentary, now streaming on Hulu, lays out in detail, including interviews from death row with Lucio himself.
Police arrested Melissa Lucio in 2007 after Mariah was found motionless on the floor of the crowded apartment where the family lived. The child showed signs of a broken arm that went untreated for weeks, a head injury, bite marks on his back and bruises all over his body. The officer who performed an autopsy on Mariah said it was one of the worst examples of child abuse she has ever seen.
But proponents argue prosecutors have been more focused on getting a headline-grabbing verdict than finding the truth.
After her arrest, Lucio was questioned for seven hours by a group of armed police officers who berated her as she pleaded innocence more than 100 times, according to a clemency petition her lawyers filed with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Lucio, who was grieved at the time, pregnant with twins and exhausted when questioning dragged on until 3am, finally appeared to admit hitting and biting her child, allegedly proving her guilt in Mariah’s death.
Experts assembled by the defense argue that this harsh interrogation of the woman, a lifelong victim of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of men, would likely produce a false confession under duress.
Some of the most harrowing footage in Texas State vs. Melissa is from that interrogation, where officers tower over a bereaved Lucio, who is seated with a baby doll they brought to represent their dead daughter.
Neither Lucio’s long file with state child protection officials nor witness testimony indicates that she was ever physically violent with any of her children, although state officials had previously removed some of her children from their care because they suffered from neglect.
Instead, Lucio, her defense team and members of her family say Mariah was injured when she fell down the stairs at the apartment days before she died and was a target of abuse from her siblings, the 53-year-old’s attorney claims at the trial never raised in her defense.
Armando Villalobos, the district attorney who led the case against Lucio and who was “tough on crime,” is currently serving a 13-year federal prison sentence on bribery and racketeering charges related to a wide-ranging Texas corruption ring.
Despite nearly two decades of court appeals, these aggravating factors rarely made a difference to the state and federal officials overseeing Lucio’s case. Texas executed the most people in modern US historyand the US Supreme Court obliterated Lucio’s last appeal. Lucio’s story seemed destined to be forgotten forever.
Twenty years after Lucio’s arrest, her family said Ms Van Tassel was the first reporter they met who seemed interested in hearing her side of the story.
“They basically said, ‘Nice to see you,'” she said of her first trip to Texas. “‘You’re the first reporter ever to ask us any questions about what happened, and that’s what it is.”
They told her about the fall, the likely abuse from other siblings, the overwhelming defense, and the zealous prosecution. A seemingly simple case of a neglectful mother committing a horrific crime suddenly turned into something much more complicated.
“Within an hour of being with her sister, she was telling me that Mariah had fallen down a flight of stairs, that Melissa had never been violent towards her, and that the family was actually always mad at Melissa for never grounding her children. ‘ said the filmmaker. “She was just way too indulgent and she had a tendency to never say anything to her kids and it drove the family crazy.”
Pretty soon, a lot more people would start asking questions.
Why the Death Penalty Doesn’t Work for America
More than half of the state’s Republican House of Representatives has joined calls to halt the execution by either commuting Lucio’s sentence or delaying it until more evidence can be considered.
“If we do everything we can to make sure an innocent Texan doesn’t get killed by the state, or even a potentially innocent Texan gets killed by the state … we strengthen our criminal justice system,” a GOP official said jeff leach von Plano, Co-Chair of the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said in March.
Kim Kardashian has also thrown her influence behind the innocence campaign, a move Ms. Van Tassel said she deeply respects. She spent years trying to get other notables interested in the case, to no avail.
“I’m so thankful because she has an incredible fame that she’s putting to good use,” she said. “With one tweet she can change a person’s life and she is doing it. A lot of celebs don’t do that.”
Backers created one petition on behalf of Lucio and are calling on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and parole and parole officials to consider clemency or a delay in execution.
Without any form of intervention, Ms. Lucio was executed on April 27th.
Another notable element of the film is a question that rarely arises in the heated conversations about guilt and innocence that accompany high-profile death penalty cases: What is the point of this type of punishment? Has it made the world a better place for the people most affected by the alleged crime?
After Ms. Lucio was placed on death row, her children were scattered across the state in the foster care system, partially estranging them from each other and their mother for years.
“Every night we cried and said we missed our mother. It’s all this time that’s been lost. If they were really investigating, you know what happened, we wouldn’t be here. We would be with her. Everything would have been different,” says one of Melissa’s sons in the film.
The Lucio family will never get those years back, but Ms Van Tassel hopes the public pressure surrounding the case can keep her from losing more years with her mother if she is truly innocent. No matter what, it’s clear that the name Melissa Lucio is no longer forgotten.
“Whether you are for or against the death penalty, I am convinced that no American wants an innocent person to be executed. you have to make noise Melissa has become a symbol against false beliefs,” she said. “Melissa’s case isn’t going away. If Melissa is executed, it will pollute the state of Texas for years to come.”
The Independent and the Nonprofit Corporate responsibility initiative for justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the United States. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 high-profile signatories to its Business Leaders’ Statement Against the Death Penalty – with The Independent being the latest on the list. We join high-profile leaders such as Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and commit to highlighting the injustices of the death penalty in our reporting.