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Attorneys seek to stop the execution of a Texas mother they say was wrongly sentenced to death

Death Penalty Texas
Pat Sullivan
/
AP
FILE - This May 27, 2008 file photo, shows an execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas. The Republican-controlled Texas House has voted to ban the execution of inmates who are severely mentally ill in the nation’s busiest death-penalty state. No lawmaker spoke in opposition of the bill

Lawyers for Melissa Lucio argue Texas is scheduled to execute an innocent woman convicted for her child’s accidental death nearly 15 years ago.

A state district court in the Rio Grande Valley is weighing a motion filed this week to withdraw or postpone the execution date of a woman convicted of killing her two-year-old daughter in 2007.

In the filing before the 138th Judicial District Court in Cameron County, lawyers for Melissa Lucio, 53, argue the mother of 14 children is innocent and was denied a fair trial.

"It's horrific,” said Vanessa Potkin, one of Lucio’s attorneys and director of special litigation for the Innocence Project—a group focused on exonerating the wrongly convicted—“and the only thing more horrific is that she's scheduled to be executed in just over two months for what was a tragic accident.”

Potkin explained Lucio’s daughter Mariah died from a head injury two days after accidentally falling down a flight of stairs, while the family moved out of an apartment in Harlingen. She said a jury found Lucio guilty of capital murder based on a confession that investigators aggressively coerced from her.

Investigators interrogated Lucio for several hours immediately after her daughter’s death and while she was pregnant with twins. According to the motion, “Melissa was subjected to a five-hour, late-night, carefully orchestrated and aggressive interrogation until, physically and emotionally exhausted, she eventually said ‘I guess I did it.”

Lucio’s lawyers argue the confession should have been discounted due to the coercive measures used by investigators and her history of physical and sexual abuse starting when she was a young child. Expert witness testimony on Lucio's lifetime of abuse was not admitted during the trial as an explanation for why she claimed responsibility after hours of interrogation.

"Police just rushed to judgment,” said Potkin. “They made a decision immediately that they thought this was murder. They never explored the possibility that this was an accident.”

According to Potkin, Lucio is one of many innocent victims of the U.S. justice system.

"We know that the system gets it wrong frequently in the US. Since 1973, and the reinstatement of the death penalty, 186 people have been exonerated from death row including 16 in Texas," she said citing statistics compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

If the district court does not intervene, Lucio’s attorneys plan to file a petition for clemency with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which could recommend for the governor to halt the execution.

“If the state of Texas goes forward with her execution, this will be something that we cannot undo, we cannot go back and fix this error," said Potkin.

Lucio is scheduled to die by lethal injection on April 27. She is one of six women on death row in Texas.