The U.S. Supreme Court on October 18, 2021 denied review in the case of Texas death-row prisoner Melissa Elizabeth Lucio (pictured). Lucio was convicted and sentenced to death on charges that she murdered her two-year-old daughter, Mariah. Lucio has long maintained that Mariah died from an accidental fall.

During a lengthy interrogation by police on the night her daughter died, Lucio gave a statement that prosecutors presented to the jury as a confession to killing Mariah. Lucio admitted to having spanked 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.”

At trial, Lucio’s defense team sought to introduce testimony from two experts in trauma and mental health. Social worker Norma Villanueva and psychologist Dr. John Pinkerman had examined Lucio and said that her lifelong history of abuse and mental illness explained the “numb” and “deadpan” emotional state that police and prosecutors interpreted as evidence of her guilt.

In 2019, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted Lucio a new trial, finding that the trial court’s exclusion of testimony from the two experts had violated Lucio’s right to present a “complete defense.” It was only the second time in more than 150 cases that the circuit court had granted relief to a Texas habeas corpus petitioner sentenced to death this century. However, in February 2021, the full Fifth Circuit reversed that ruling by a 10-7 vote, reinstating Lucio’s death sentence.

Lucio sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, receiving support from a coalition of advocates for victims of domestic and gender-based violence, former prosecutors, legal scholars, and innocence organizations. In amicus briefs filed with the court, anti-violence advocates explained that 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,” they wrote. “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,” they said.