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Texas prosecutor pushes back on pleas to stop execution of Melissa Lucio

HOUSTON — Members of a Texas House committee on Tuesday repeatedly pressed a prosecutor to use his authority to stop the April 27 execution of a woman whose conviction is being questioned amid growing doubts about whether she fatally beat her 2-year-old daughter.

But during a sometimes contentious hearing, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz initially resisted calls from lawmakers that he ask a judge to recall the death warrant for Melissa Lucio, suggesting at first he didn’t have the power to do so, then later saying there was no legal reason for him to act as various appeals court are still considering requests in her case. He later declared his belief the execution would be stopped.

April 13, 202201:56

“I believe the (Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) will issue a stay and that is the way the system works,” Saenz said.

But lawmakers on the Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform expressed frustration during the meeting in Austin that Saenz would not “push the pause button” himself.

“Washing your hands to make this decision yourself to me is very shocking,” said state Rep. Jeff Leach, the committee’s chair.

Image: Texas death row inmate Melissa Lucio, dressed in white, leads a group of seven Texas lawmakers in prayer in a room at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas on April 6, 2022.
Texas death row inmate Melissa Lucio, dressed in white, leads a group of seven Texas lawmakers in prayer in a room at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas on April 6, 2022. The lawmakers visited Lucio to update her about their efforts to stop her April 27 execution.Texas state Rep. Jeff Leach via AP

Saenz pushed back, saying he disagreed with claims by Lucio’s attorneys that there was new evidence that would exonerate her.

“I am not washing my hands of this. I am dealing with it and there are hard decisions to make. You disagree with me but that doesn’t mean I am washing my hands of it,” Saenz said.

Saenz later said that if an appeals courts didn’t take action to stop Lucio’s execution, he would work to delay it so the various legal claims pending in the case could be reviewed.

State Rep. Joe Moody said he believed if there are mistakes in a case, “it is the duty and the moral responsibility of a prosecutor to right those wrongs.”

But Saenz disagreed, saying courts “call the errors, not me.”

Tuesday’s hearing was led by Leach and Moody, who are part of a bipartisan group of more than 80 Texas House members who are troubled by Lucio’s case and believe new evidence shows she did not fatally beat her daughter Mariah in 2007 in the South Texas city of Harlingen.

The lawmakers last month sent a letter to the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott asking them to grant an execution reprieve or commute her sentence.

Leach and Moody were among a group of seven lawmakers who last week visited Lucio on women’s death row in Gatesville, Texas.

Melissa Lucio
Melissa Lucio holds her daughter Mariah. Family photo via AP

Prosecutors have maintained Mariah was the victim of child abuse as her body was covered in bruises. A medical examiner testified Mariah died from a blow to her head. Authorities say Lucio had a history of drug abuse and at times had lost custody of some of her 14 children.

But Lucio’s lawyers say jurors never heard forensic evidence that would have explained Mariah’s various injuries were actually caused by a fall down a steep staircase. They also say Lucio wasn’t allowed to present evidence questioning the validity of her confession, which they allege was given under duress after hours of relentless questioning.

Several jurors from her trial have also expressed doubts about her conviction.

One of those jurors, Johnny Galvan Jr., appeared before the committee. In a statement that was read by his daughter, Galvan said he believed Lucio’s lawyers failed to present pertinent evidence in her case and he felt pressured by other jurors to sentence her to death.

“I will be haunted by Ms. Lucio’s execution if it goes forward,” Galvan said.

Earlier Tuesday, Lucio’s attorneys announced a fifth juror has questioned the conviction. An alternate juror has also expressed doubts.

Image: Esperanza Treviño, 77, mother of Melissa Lucio, surrounded by family and friends, on the steps of the Cameron County Courthouse Administrative entrance in Brownsville, Texas, on Feb. 7, 2022.
Esperanza Treviño, 77, mother of Melissa Lucio, surrounded by family and friends, on the steps of the Cameron County Courthouse Administrative entrance in Brownsville, Texas, on Feb. 7, 2022. Miguel Roberts / The Brownsville Herald via AP file

“I believe Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and for a new jury to hear this evidence. Knowing what I know now, I don’t think she should be executed,” Melissa Quintanilla, the jury forewoman, said in an affidavit.

Saenz said his office had contacted the seven other jurors who sentenced Lucio and six of them had not changed their minds while the seventh had died.

After the committee meeting, Sonya Alvarez, one of Lucio’s sisters, said her family was encouraged after hearing Saenz say he would stop the execution if the courts didn’t act.

“We’re just hopeful … that he’s going to do the right thing and allow this new evidence to be presented,” Alvarez said.

Lucio, 52, would be the first Latina executed by Texas and the first woman since 2014. Only 17 women have been executed in the U.S. since the Supreme Court lifted its ban on the death penalty in 1976, most recently in January 2021.