Criminal Justice

Texas Court Stays Execution of Mom Sentenced for Child's Death

The state claimed she beat a 2-year-old to death. But evidence may show it was the result of a fall down stairs.


A Texas mom who has spent 14 years on death row and was scheduled to be executed Wednesday has been given a reprieve by the state's Court of Criminal Appeals.

In 2007, Melissa Lucio was convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. Prosecutors attributed Mariah's death to abuse, but Lucio said Mariah's injuries were the result of a fall down the stairs of the family's apartment.

Lucio, assisted by representation from the Innocence Project, has been fighting for years to prove that Mariah's death was the result of a tragic accident, not murder or abuse. She has claimed that alternative explanations for the child's death were not explored at trial and her confession had been coerced during a lengthy police interrogation. Her other children had been interviewed and told investigators she never beat them. One of them supposedly witnessed Mariah's fall, but the defense did not call on them to testify.

A panel of judges for the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Lucio should get a retrial. But when the state appealed to the full appeals court, judges decided to defer to the state court and uphold the conviction.

For the current appeal in state court, Lucio's attorneys presented nine separate claims as part of a motion to stay her execution. In Monday's order, the Court of Criminal Appeals determined that four of her claims met the threshold to stay her execution and to remand the claims to a trial court for review.

The four claims are significant. The court is willing to consider that false testimony was used to convict Lucio; previously unavailable scientific evidence could exonerate her; the state suppressed favorable evidence; and finally, she may actually be innocent.

"I am grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in my heart today and always," Lucio said in a statement through her attorneys.

CNN reports what will happen next: A court in Brownsville, Texas, will consider the evidence of Lucio's innocence and make a recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The court will then decide whether Lucio should receive a new trial.

To be clear, Lucio hasn't been exonerated. The court is going to look at additional evidence that could clear Lucio as well as the claims that faulty science (like a disputed claim that the child had been bitten by an adult) played a role in Lucio's conviction.

Until then, she remains on death row, but she will at least not be executed on Wednesday.

Lenore Skenazy looked at the complicated details of Lucio's case for Reason in March. Read more about it here.