AUSTIN, Texas — Melissa Lucio, a Texas woman sentenced to die for the death of her infant daughter, has been granted a stay of execution following pressure from local government officials, national celebrities, and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
The order was handed down on Monday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which called for a review of Lucio’s case in light of evidence that the 53-year-old mother of 14 might in fact be innocent.
The decision came just minutes before the state’s board of pardons was scheduled to vote on whether to grant a delay for the same.
“Melissa’s case highlights the serious flaws in our justice system that allowed her to be condemned to death on the basis of a dubious conviction,” reads a statement from the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops.
“May Melissa’s story be a catalyst for our civic leaders to consider more deeply the need for reform of our laws and practices regarding criminal justice.”
Catholic Mobilizing Network, a national organization dedicated to ending the death penalty, also joined the chorus of supporters for Lucio, who remains on death row at the Mountain View Unit prison in Gatesville while awaiting a further decision from the courts.
“We give thanks to God that Melissa will not be executed this week and that she will soon have the opportunity for a new trial to prove her innocence,” said CMN executive director Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy in their statement.
“Melissa is a person created in the image and likeness of God. Her case captured the nation’s interest because it reminds us that all human life is endowed with an inviolable dignity, and should never be taken by the state.”
Lucio, herself a Catholic, was convicted of capital murder concerning the death of her two-year-old daughter Mariah Alvarez, who Lucio and at least one other witness originally claimed fell down a flight of stairs two days before she died of her injuries.
Lucio’s later confession of murder came only after seven hours of interrogation—without lawyers, food, or water. Lucio had also been a longtime victim of abuse from her husband, Robert Alvarez. Despite these facts, Lucio’s appeal attempts before this month had proven futile, including a petition to the US Supreme Court that was denied last October.
In recent years, her case has attracted the attention of the national media, resulting in the 2020 documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa”, and a feature last month on an episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”. Both cover the looming questions surrounding the legality of Lucio’s conviction and the likelihood of her innocence.
Prominent figures, including noted criminal justice advocate Kim Kardashian and Amanda Knox—famously exonerated of murder in 2015 after a false confession eight years prior—joined the calls for Lucio’s release, saying that unjust law enforcement procedures were a deciding factor in her conviction.
In late March, the Texas bishops sent a letter to Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and Governor Greg Abbott (also a Catholic) asking them to grant Lucio clemency ahead of her scheduled execution—originally set for today, April 27th.
A similar letter was sent in March by the Texas House of Representatives, a bipartisan majority of which support Lucio’s claims of innocence. Two-thirds of the Texas Senate, also spanning the aisle, signed a letter of their own on April 13th.
For now, Lucio’s fate remains in the hands of the courts and those of Abbott, who has only once used his executive powers to spare the life of a death row inmate—that of Thomas “Bart” Whitaker, a White man convicted of double murder in 2007.
Upon hearing the news of her stay of execution, Lucio was all gratitude.
“Are you serious?” she asked Republican state representative Jeff Leach, a supporter who related the news.
“That is wonderful… Oh, thank you, God.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).