A coalition of advocates for victims of domestic and gender-based violence, former prosecutors, legal scholars, and innocence organizations have filed briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a Texas woman who was sentenced to death for what forensic evidence suggests may have been an accidental fall that killed her two-year-old daughter.

Melissa Elizabeth Lucio (pictured) is asking the Court to reverse her conviction for the death of her daughter, Mariah, arguing that she was denied the right to present a complete defense when, after prosecutors told the jury she had confessed to killing her daughter, the trial judge refused to allow her to present expert testimony to explain how her lifelong history as a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence had affected her response to coercive police interrogation.

On August 11, 2021, sixteen anti-violence organizations, joined by eight experts in the field of gender-based violence and former prosecutors, filed an amicus brief urging the Court to review Lucio’s case. Their brief explains that Lucio’s “flat affect and acquiescence” to police suggestions that she had killed her daughter, which prosecutors told the jury were proof of her guilt, instead “were symptoms of trauma resulting from the violence she had endured throughout her life.” The trial court’s order excluding expert testimony about the effects of that trauma, they wrote, “deprived Melissa of the only means she had of explaining that, notwithstanding her demeanor and self-incriminating statements, she was innocent of her daughter’s murder.”

A second brief, filed the same day by The Innocence Project and the Innocence Network, explained to the Court that “[p]olice interrogation may sometimes psychologically pressure even innocent people to confess to crimes they did not commit,” and that the risk of a false confession is “heightened” when, as in Lucio’s case, “the interrogated suspect is a battered woman.”

In July 2019, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted Lucio a new trial, unanimously holding that the trial court’s ruling had violated Lucio’s right to present a complete defense. Texas prosecutors sought reargument before the full circuit court of appeals, and in a fractured 10-7 decision that did not command a majority in its reasoning, the court reversed the panel and restored Lucio’s death sentence. Ten judges agreed that the trial court ruling “was the key evidentiary ruling at trial” and excluded “testimony that might have cast doubt on the credibility of Lucio’s confession.” But while they believed that the expert testimony could have affected the verdict, three of those ten judges wrote that they were precluded under federal habeas corpus law from ruling in Lucio’s favor because they believed the U.S. Supreme Court had not clearly spoken on this issue at the time of Lucio’s trial and appeal.

The circuit’s ruling continued the Fifth Circuit’s unparalleled hostility to capital habeas petitions. Grants of relief in Texas capital cases have been described as “vanishingly rare,” with a reversal rate of 0.66%. A 2020 study found that the circuit had granted or upheld grants of relief to only one of the 151 Texas prisoners who have been sentenced to death since 2000. Since that time, the circuit overturned the panel ruling that had granted Lucio a new trial and has upheld every lower court denial of relief.

Lucio’s Long History of Severe Abuse

The amicus brief filed the gender-violence experts recounts Lucio’s long history of severe abuse. Lucio and her siblings were abandoned by their father. Starting at age six, Lucio experienced repeated abuse from her mother’s partner. She dropped out of high school and, to escape the abuse at home, got married at age 16. Her alcoholic husband was violent towards her, and later abandoned her and their five children, “repeating the cycle of abuse and abandonment Melissa had experienced as a child.”

Lucio subsequently moved in with another man who was also abusive. Her children called 911 and reported domestic violence to Child Protective Services, but authorities failed to intervene. “By the time she gave birth to her twelfth child,” the gender-violence experts wrote, “Melissa had experienced homelessness, drug addiction, and severe mental illness.”

At trial, the prosecution alleged that Lucio had physically abused her daughter, Mariah, over an extended period of time and had beaten her death. Lucio’s lawyers contested the cause of death, presenting expert testimony from a neurosurgeon that Mariah may have died from head trauma caused by falling down a flight of stairs. The main evidence implicating Lucio was a recording of statements she made to police during lengthy interrogation the night her daughter died. During that interrogation, Lucio admitted to spanking Mariah, but denied ever having abused her. Late into the night, after hours of continuous interrogation, Texas Ranger Victor Escalon pressured Lucio to say more. She responded with: “I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m responsible for it.” When Escalon later asked her about specific bruises on her daughter’s body, Lucio said, “I guess I did it. I guess I did it.”

The Unreliability of Lucio’s Confession

Experts in trauma and mental health examined Lucio and concluded that her history of abuse affected her demeanor in ways that police wrongly interpreted as indicating guilt. Escalon was permitted to testify at trial that Lucio’s “slumped posture, passivity, and failure to make eye contact during interrogation told him ‘right there and then’ that she ‘did it.’” By contrast, social worker Norma Villanueva testified during Lucio’s penalty phase that her “dead pan face” was “very characteristic of children that have been abused, especially, if they’re not being protected.”

Dr. John Pinkerman, a psychologist who examined Lucio, diagnosed her with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) stemming from her abuse. His report explained, “in times of significant stress, [Lucio] ‘quickly numbs her emotions and assumes a passive, empty presentation.’” The trial court did not allow Villanueva and Pinkerman to testify during the culpability phase of Lucio’s trial, permitting their testimony only in the penalty phase, after she had already been convicted.

The anti-violence advocates and legal experts wrote in their brief that “The State exploited Melissa’s symptoms of trauma to persuade the jury of her guilt. … Had he been permitted to testify, Dr. Pinkerman would have explained that Melissa dissociated from the reality of losing her daughter and numbed her emotions to distance herself from the pain. In the absence of his expert opinion, the jury was apt to conclude — as the State clearly hoped it would — that her lack of visible emotion was a sign of cold indifference to her child’s death.” The brief also explains how Lucio’s history made her more likely to falsely confess: “Research shows that past trauma is ‘significantly associated’ with heightened suggestibility among individuals who falsely confess to crimes.” More broadly, they argue that “The legal proceedings in Melissa Lucio’s case expose the legal system’s failure to understand the consequences of gender-based violence and its relevance in the criminal justice system.”

The brief of the Innocence Project and Innocence Network explained how the police interrogation of Lucio employed “high risk tactics” that increased the likelihood of a false confession. Arguing for the importance of defense experts, the brief states, “Experts help juries understand the phenomenon of false confessions and, therefore, can help safeguard against miscarriages of justice.”

“A substantial percentage of women who were wrongfully convicted of killing a child were coerced into falsely confessing,” the innocence groups wrote. When a battered woman is accused of killing her child, they argued, the “need for expert testimony to explain these risks to lay juries [is] more acute” and is critical to assessing the reliability of the alleged confession.


Sandra Babcock, Coalition of Former Prosecutors and Anti-Violence Organizations File Brief in Support of Melissa Lucio, Victim of Gender-Based Violence Facing Execution in Texas, Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, August 12, 2021. Photo cour­tesy of @Vitofilms.

Read the ami­cus briefs of the Former Prosecutors and Anti-Violence Organizations and The Innocence Project and Innocence Network filed in the U.S. Supreme Court on August 112021.