Melissa Lucio Has Died Eight Times
by Valerie Morales
Melissa Lucio will not be executed on Wednesday the 27th of April. Her blood will not wound the world. The rocks will not cry out. Her death won’t demand urgency. Her children won’t mourn her even as they mourn her. Melissa Elizabeth Lucio is still incarcerated. But she has a morsel of hope to cling to.
There’s been a lot said about Melissa’s upcoming death in the electric chair, and much of it focused on the travesty of injustice. The railroading of a poor mother. The possible criminality of the prosecutor. The stolid inanity of the system. And yet. Even though her death was called off at the last moment, and even though it was a small victory and a large victory it did not erase everything. The execution that is no longer was not going to be Melissa’s first death.
Her first death was when she was molested. Her second death was her mother doubting the abuse. Her third death was the molestations continuing and feeling desperate. Her fourth death was leaving home at the age of 16 and the string of damaged men she submitted to. Her fifth death was self-medicating behind the bathroom door. Her sixth death were all the children. She loved them but they overwhelmed her. Her seventh death was undereducation which left her defenseless and a target. Her eighth death was when her two-year-old baby died, and she was held responsible.
Melissa Lucio has died eight times. Like most death row inmates in this stage of their sentence, her days were anxiety ridden. She was intimately close to the walk of Hell where the electric chair awaited her. That all of it happened in Texas, a state famous for its injustice, barely wrinkles the brow. Seemingly, the Lonestar state eroticizes wrongful convictions.
The volume of wronged inmates in Texas is nearly biblical. Michael Morton served 25 years for killing his wife before being released. The prosecutor withheld evidence and spent 10 days in jail. Anthony Charles Graves spent 18 years in prison for killing a family of six. Graves was twice scheduled for execution. The real killer eventually confessed and was executed. Graves was awared $1.4 million for the time he spent on death row. James Curtis Giles didn’t commit a gang rape. The state of Texas said he did and he served 10 years in prison. The list goes on and on and on…
Texas leads the nation in these kinds of stories, twice as many wrongfully convicted as any other state which weakens their moral argument of being Christ-centered. The amount of reform in the Texas judicial system is akin to a bandage on a gunshot wound. The blood seeps and weeps and puddles regardless of that flimsy piece of tape. This is why. Eyewitness testimony is specious. Flawed photo lineups kill innocent prisoners. Racists cops infect jury trials. Bored and pathetic attorneys are responsible for bungled defenses. Coerced confessions from the vulnerable railroad defendants.
Melissa Lucio’s story has a certain kind of road map. Soul sucking poverty at the structural level. Melissa’s defense attorney, a long-faced white man named Peter Gilman didn’t think it appropriate to include in the trial that Melissa’s older daughter Alexandra hated the baby who died and perhaps she pushed her down the rickety white stairs. That Gillman joined the District Attorney’s office at trial’s end didn’t pass the smell test. As for the District Attorney who convicted her. Armando Villalobos was investigated by the FBI, DEA, and IRS and was convicted of bribery, extortion, and racketeering.
On the other side, Melissa’s heroes. Lawyers like Margaret Schmucker have made Melissa’s case their crusade. Melissa Lucio’s freedom and innocence are championed by Democrats and Republicans alike and the celebrity class like Kim Kardashian. And yet, sadly, it took a film, and the pretty people of the world to tell her story.
It was a long-ago February night when Mariah Lucio died. Mariah, the baby of a large Latino family, was only two years old when paramedics were called late into the night because little Mariah wasn’t moving. Her overwhelmed and impoverished mother was distraught but lacked an explanation other than Mariah had fallen down the white crumbly stairs a while back. Because Melissa Lucio couldn’t place exactly when the fall explicitly happened and because a lot of abusers use she fell down the stairs excuse, Melissa was instantly considered a suspect despite her lived experience of a domestic violence victim and the kind of mother who punishes her kids by making them stand in the corner. To the authorities, she seemed shady, both as a mother and everything in between, because what was visible to the eye were bite marks. And patches of missing hair. A broken arm. Someone had to be responsible. Melissa seemed likely.
By the time Mariah arrived at the hospital that February night she was dead. An autopsy revealed she suffered from a head injury, bruising to the kidneys, lungs, and injuries to her spinal cord. Dr. Norma Jean Farley autopsied the body and said it was the worst case of child abuse she had ever seen. Little Mariah had bruises from head to toe. “I did think this was a homicide” Farley admitted. Soon thereafter, Mariah’s mother was arrested for her murder.
Desperate and starkly poor, the mother of twelve, undereducated, an abuse survivor, an addict, Melissa fit central casting: the cruel mother. Or the angry mother. Or the bad mother. She was questioned without a lawyer, and without food or water. After 7 hours of being accused and blamed and bullied during an interrogation she lacked the capacity to endure, Melissa broke like a river breaks a dam. She said “I guess I did it. I’m responsible.” It was presented in the trial as a confession because her attorney didn’t file a motion to suppress. In effect, Peter Gilman neatened up the prosecutorial case. Melissa’s words came back to haunt her. Even if those words were a lie.
The courtroom was packed when the verdict was read. Alternatively, there were tears of joy and tears of anguish and the defendant Melissa Lucio who was naïve to the justice system was very confused particularly when she was given the death penalty. “I don’t understand how the court system,” she told filmmakers Sabrina Van Tassel and Cyril Thomas “could have done this to me” as if the court system was as powerful as the men who shape it into a killing field of injustice.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” he explains the neural concept of Thin Slicing. Thin slicing is how our brains make snap judgments based on small slices of impressions and experiences. For instance, we thin slice when we decide on a book solely because of the cover, assuming it’s a good read without having read much past the first page. When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars we were shocked because we had thin sliced Will Smith as a friendly decent person we’d like to have as a friend. We thin slice women who are poor and have a lot of children and who struggle to take care of their families. Their poverty is attributable to their failure.
The art of thin slicing is a method of brain functioning. However correct the judgments may be, and concrete, those same judgments can also traffic in racism. Snap judgments of let’s say, people of color, are interpreted through limited and not lived experiences and often are anchored in stereotypes, negative encounters, implicit bias, and wrong data.
The police, for instance, attacked Melissa Lucio in the interrogation room. Bullying a poor brown-skinned woman with little education, a woman who had been abused by men her entire life was intentional. They knew she would crack. Performatively, as if they had the foresight to know their histrionics would be included in a documentary (“The State of Texas vs. Melissa), they shouted and screamed and called her everything but the son of God. Outraged, they told Melissa she beat her daughter to death. They convinced her she was responsible for Mariah’s bruises.
Up to that point in her life Melissa’s identity, absent her personal transgressions and failings, was the good mother archetype. Her interrogators created a new narrative that didn’t fit. Melissa was either an evil killer or an angry mother. It was Gladwell all over again, thin-slicing in real-time. A small impression creating a larger narrative that prosecutors sold to a jury who wanted justice for Mariah and suffering for Melissa. An eye for an eye in Catholic Texas.
Neither the detectives nor the prosecutors though were interested in looking at Mariah’s death as a math puzzle and trying to put the pieces together, piece by piece, bit by bit, witness testimony, timeline, bruises. Instead, they did what lazy people with government jobs do, what’s easiest.
Blame the death on the mother.
We believe in Gods. And we fear monsters. We admire priests. And we hate whores. We love the pious. And we are disgusted by the greedy. Our moral compass rarely rests in the gray area of human behavior but on extremes. It’s a country where mothering is either benevolence or it is evil. You either love your children or you ruin them. Years ago, bad mothers were locked up in sanitoriums and their children were taken away. They were considered to be crazy because who wouldn’t love their own children.
It’s a convenient impulse to wrap the job of motherhood in sticky Hallmark Channel goo. Pragmatically and strategically, motherhood is the easiest way to domesticate women who would otherwise emasculate men in the workplace. Occupying them with the needs of children keeps women submissive, unseen, and out of the job market. A patriarchal tension has always been present only because motherhood has always been filled with prejudicial expectations. Catalan journalist Esther Vivas wrote “The fact is, as mothers, we don’t do what we want. We do what we can.” And then we are pilloried for what that looks like.
During her murder trial, Melissa Lucio was portrayed as a monster. Unloving. Unfeeling. Horrible. She beat her daughter Mariah and then lacked remorse. She wasn’t even a good Catholic because a good Catholic would love all her children, not wound them. Everything that defined a good mother- patient, caring, compassionate, listening, forgiving- was missing in Melissa Elizabeth Lucio.
It was a very powerful argument in a very Catholic courtroom with very ordinary people on Mariah’s side, wanting her death to be avenged.
The Achilles heel of this kind of argument- you reap what you sow, an eye for an eye- is the data. Andrea Yates drowned all five of her children and wasn’t given the death penalty and in Texas to boot. China P. Arnold put her daughter Paris in the microwave oven and will spend her golden years in prison. Deanna Laney killed her two sons with rocks because God ordered her to and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Shaquan Duley suffocated her two young children and then sunk a car with their bodies inside into the river. She is serving a 35-year sentence.
Who is the death penalty reserved for? The heinousness of the crime isn’t the tipping point because Deanna Laney bludgeoned her kids with rocks and a jury considered her insane. The death penalty is not reserved for prior acts of violence, there’s not a hierarchy of crimes, a step A to step C that delivers the death penalty to your door. Melissa had never been arrested. While she was suffocatingly poor, she had never committed a violent act in her life. So why Melissa? Why the death penalty?
Timing perhaps. District Attorney Villalobos was up for reelection. He needed a case that would remind voters he cared about children and crime. The death of a two-year-old is polarizing as an event, particularly in a pious town. Outside of her family, Melissa was swimming upstream. No one really cared about what happened to her because we really hate poor people.
A few days ago, a story appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. A black woman named Sabrina Dolan believed she was being poisoned. Mold was on the windows. Mold was in her bathroom. When she coughed, a mottled grotesque mucus mess would settle into her palm. Sabrina’s landlord took her phone calls but never fixed anything. Ever. It’s a syllabus on being poor whereas your invisibility is someone else’s profit margin. The material hardship you endure is a private battle often kept hidden. Poverty’s infrastructure is a tangled system of water running downhill in a labyrinthine maze of lies and excuses. It trapped Melissa and probably trapped her mother and maybe her mother before that.
The day Mariah was believed to have fallen down the stairs, Melissa had just moved into another apartment and was busy unpacking. It was one more dilapidated place she could afford that was like all the other dilapidated places she lived in. Years earlier, Melissa’s children had been removed from her custody for neglect. No running water so they toted water into the bathroom to flush the toilets. Little food. They were homeless at one point and slept in a park. Melissa tested positive for cocaine. Lead poisoning wouldn’t have been a surprise considering the run-down conditions she was forced to live in. Undereducation meant she couldn’t change her circumstance. She went to bed every night knowing she didn’t have enough money to take care of basic needs. She woke up every morning knowing someone was going to be hungry.
Hunger. Messiness. Scarcity. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Daylight. Darkness. Desperation. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
For a very long time, Melissa’s life was a bunch of transparent ifs. If she could afford a place that didn’t have so many crooked steps. If she had the time or energy to watch all of her children. If she wasn’t so lonely. If she wasn’t so poor. If she hadn’t been abused. If the drugs…If. If. If.
In jail, she dreams about Mariah, about brushing her hair, about her barrettes fastening in place, about Mariah ferrying her through the grass. Mariah. Mariah. Mariah. But is the war just about over?
Melissa’s own irrelevance as a poor mother turned inmate is secondary, nudged out the way by what was done to her when she was a child, and sadly, what was done to her own child and how the state of Texas wanted to kill her because Mariah fell. It is haunting. It is broken. That place where you are stuck between wishing for someone who is gone and having no control over what happens next.
When she was still young and underappreciated, before the trial was scheduled to be the biggest show in town, there was a plea deal on the table. Plead guilty. Serve 30 years. Melissa’s decision is debatable now but then she refused to lie and say she was guilty, that she killed Mariah. Serving 30 years wasn’t enough of a lure. She was unwilling to commodify her future with something that wasn’t true in her past.
You speak a lie and you whisper a lie. You scream a lie and you swallow a lie. Melissa would have had to live it all if she pled guilty. She would have had to sit with her language and her words, her pauses and her silence. She would have had to live the damage and the root, the lie and the cowardice, the sin of it all, and her own complicity of wanting the easy thing instead of needing the right thing. She just couldn’t walk that kind of ugly walk that you never recover from, that keeps you awake at night gasping for breath. No. Melissa couldn’t say she killed her own daughter. And that she was guilty. Not when she loved her daughter so very much.
But what we are all left with is Justice 101 and why the system is so broken for more than half of the American population. The woman who wouldn’t say she killed her own daughter was a blink away from being killed by the state of Texas. Because she wouldn’t say she killed her own daughter.