Melissa Lucio, a Texas Mother, Faces a Difficult Fight for a New Trial After a Stay of Execution.

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ls court, her attorneys will now focus on persuading a judge to recommend that she be granted a new trial.

However, that is expected to be a difficult courtroom battle, and even if they succeed in persuading the trial judge, the state’s highest criminal court — which has the final say — may disagree and uphold her conviction, legal experts said Tuesday.

“Obtaining a favorable recommendation is not guaranteed.

“This case is far from over,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Lucio was scheduled to die by lethal injection on Wednesday for the 2007 death of her daughter Mariah in Harlingen, Texas. However, on Monday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals postponed her execution. If Lucio is sentenced to death, she will be Texas’ first Latina executed since 1863 and the state’s first woman executed since 2014.

 

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Prosecutors maintained that the girl was abused and that her body was covered in bruises at the time of her death.

Lucio’s attorneys assert that her capital murder conviction was based on an unreliable and coerced confession and that she was denied the opportunity to present evidence challenging the confession’s validity.

Additionally, her attorneys argue that unscientific and false evidence led jurors to believe Mariah’s injuries were caused solely by abuse and not by medical complications resulting from a severe fall down a steep staircase.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals requested that the Brownsville trial judge overseeing Lucio’s case, Gabriela Garcia, review four claims made by her lawyers: that prosecutors used false evidence to convict her; that previously unavailable scientific evidence would have prevented her conviction; that she is actually innocent; and that prosecutors suppressed evidence favorable to her defense.

Tivon Schardl, one of Lucio’s attorneys, stated that prior to a hearing to consider new evidence in the case, rulings on two defense motions to recuse Garcia and Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz over allegations of conflict of interest and due process violations will need to be made. Lucio’s 2008 defense attorney is now a prosecutor in Saenz’s office. Garcia’s court administrator is Lucio’s trial attorney’s wife, who previously worked as his paralegal.

“We hope that in the future, logic and science will prevail, and Melissa will receive a recommendation from the trial court, backed up by the state of Texas, for a new trial,” Schardl said.

Garcia has not specified when he will begin reviewing Lucio’s case. However, a final decision on whether she will receive a new trial could take years.

Saenz stated Monday that he welcomed the opportunity to have the case reviewed in court. He previously expressed reservations about Lucio’s defense attorneys’ assertions that new evidence would exonerate her.

On Wednesday, a rally outside the Brownsville courthouse was planned to demand that Saenz drop the case against Lucio.

“She will never be scheduled for another execution. She will be liberated. It’s simply a matter of when,” said Abe Bonowitz, executive director of Death Penalty Action, a national anti-death penalty organization that is assisting with the organization of Thursday’s rally.

Stanley Schneider, a Houston defense attorney who is unrelated to the case but has defended death row inmates, said the appeals court-ordered review demonstrates that “there are legitimate concerns about the conviction’s validity.”

Letitia Quinones, a Houston defense attorney who is not involved in the case, said Lucio’s attorneys still face a “very difficult task,” as overturning a conviction is uncommon in Texas.

“If the evidence exists in the manner outlined by her defense attorneys, she has a very good chance,” Quinones said.

However, Dunham stated that the case of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed is a good illustration of the difficulties Lucio may face.

Reed obtained a stay of execution and an appeals court ordered a review of his case in November 2019, just days before he was scheduled to be executed for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites, then 19. As with Lucio, Reed’s supporters claim that new evidence has cast serious doubt on his guilt, and he has garnered support from celebrities and elected officials.

However, a judge last year declined to recommend Reed be retried. The United States Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear Reed’s appeal regarding his efforts to test evidence in his case.

“Like Lucio, Reed possesses extraordinarily strong evidence of innocence, which the Bastrop County judge disregarded,” said Dunham, whose group opposes capital punishment but has criticized states’ execution procedures.

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In the case of Texas death row inmate Rigoberto Avila Jr., a judge recommended a new trial, but the appeals court rejected the recommendation in March 2020, Dunham said.

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