Melissa Lucio deserves a new trial

The ruling Monday from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to spare Melissa Lucio’s life so her case can be reviewed in a way that affords her a fair defense, with the full airing of evidence available, was the right one and a victory for justice.

For 15 years, we (The Dallas Morning News) have opposed the death penalty in Texas because the state’s history of exercising this power has been rife with error. There is a strong likelihood that innocent lives have been taken in the name of the people.

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Yet, despite this standing opposition, we do not write in every case when a person faces the death sentence.

But in Lucio’s case, the state risked diminishing every Texan by taking her life given the serious flaws leading to her confession to murder and in her trial.

We do not know whether Lucio, 53, is in fact guilty of murder in the 2007 death of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. Evidence presented at trial and repeated on appeal is disturbing. It includes conclusions that Mariah was brutally battered — with bruises at various stages of healing, a bite mark on her back, an arm that had been broken for several weeks and with some of her hair pulled out at the time of her death.

The evidence in the case leads us to conclude that Mariah’s brief life was filled with torture and torment.

However, we also know that there is significant evidence that the investigation and the prosecution that led to Lucio’s conviction were substantially flawed, and that there is enough doubt about her guilt that she deserves a review of her case, which the appeals court has now granted her. The appeals court Monday cited claims that prosecutors used false testimony and suppressed evidence.

A bipartisan group of Texas legislators that led a growing chorus of people opposed to killing Lucio gives us some hope that, in time, Texans more broadly will ask whether the death penalty is ever appropriate in a human system of justice.

State Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, has called Lucio’s case the “most shocking” and “most problematic” example of the way the death penalty is applied in Texas.

Lucio’s daughter died in her sleep after what was determined to be blunt force trauma. Under interrogation, Lucio denied more than 100 times beating her daughter before relenting to investigators and admitting beating her.

Her attorneys now say that new evidence indicates that Mariah’s death may have resulted from a fall down the stairs, according to reporting from Associated Press journalist Juan A. Lozano. Five jurors and one alternate have also come forward questioning their decision, Lozano reports.

Most worrisome to us is this: In 2019, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Lucio’s conviction based on a finding that she was unable to present a complete defense at trial. The full court vacated that decision. But there was still no question that important evidence was excluded from Lucio’s trial.

Writing in concurrence with the full court’s ruling, Judge Leslie H. Southwick noted the “difficult issue of the exclusion of testimony that might have cast doubt on the credibility of Lucio’s confession.”

That is chilling to contemplate. The state was ready to take the life of this woman. Yet there were seeds of doubt. As Texans, should we have had to wait until the 11th hour to prevent this killing?

— The Dallas Morning News