Opinion

What's next for Melissa Lucio's death penalty case?

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

The state of Texas sentenced Melissa Lucio to death 14 years ago, after she was convicted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter. Prosecutors claimed the toddler's death was a result of abuse, while the defense blamed her fatal head trauma on an accidental fall down the stairs. On April 25, two days before the mother was scheduled to die by lethal injection, a state appeals court postponed Lucio's execution indefinitely so a lower court could consider new evidence that may exonerate her and determine if a new trial is warranted.

Is Lucio's fate sealed, or might she now stand a revived chance in the controversial case against her? What do legal experts think of all of this? And what are prominent Texas voices saying about the use of capital punishment?

1

An 'incredible victory'

The appeal court's ruling is "not just rare, it's an incredible victory" for the Lucio family, legal expert Carmen Roe told Houston's KHOU 11. "The court also went one step further to say that the state withholding evidence in this case, as well as new scientific evidence, may be sufficient to prove that she is actually innocent, which is incredible in a case where we have an execution date that was scheduled."

Further, the execution stay and the remand on hearings for new evidence "really opens the door to the potential of a new trial in her case and, ultimately, complete vindication," Vanessa Potkin of The Innocence Project told KREM. Attorneys at the Innocence Project are working on Lucio's case. 

And Abe Bonowitz, executive director of the national anti-death penalty group organizing an upcoming rally in support of Lucio, is similarly optimistic. "She'll never get another execution date. She'll be free. It's just a question of when," he told Dallas-Fort Worth's NBC 5.

2

This is only the beginning

For a new trial to happen, Lucio's attorneys first have the difficult job of convincing a judge to recommend one. And even if they manage to do so, "the state's top criminal court — which has the final say — might disagree and keep her conviction in place," NBC 5 reports, per legal experts.

"Winning a favorable recommendation is not a done deal. … There is still a long way to go before this case is resolved," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Letitia Quinones, a Houston defense attorney with no ties to the case, agreed with Dunham in that Lucio's lawyers have a "very difficult" road ahead of them, but noted that "If [the evidence] exists in the fashion that her defense attorneys have spelled out ... she has a really good chance."

And the court-ordered review shows "there are real questions that challenge the validity" of Lucio's original conviction, added Houston defense attorney Stanley Schneider. (Keep in mind it will likely take months or even years before the lower court decides if the new evidence warrants a new trial.)

3

A different punishment

That Lucio is on death row in the first place is "an outlier," writes The New York Times; her lawyers said it is rare for prosecutors to seek capital punishment in a case where a mother has been accused of killing her children. 

"There's a lot of people on the right who are very supportive of the death penalty and just aren't sure that Melissa should be saved," said Republican state Rep. Lacey Hull, per the Times. "I hope her case makes everyone take a much greater look at the death penalty in general and where we need to make changes." By late March, over 80 Texas lawmakers from both sides of the aisle had asked Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to intervene in the case and grant Lucio clemency.

These "claims of new evidence must be taken seriously," added the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial Board. "If there is any doubt whatsoever that Lucio is guilty, she should be given a new trial, even though that will cost the state additional time and resources: When a person's life stake, and innocence is in question, the state cannot afford to be wrong."

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