By Max Kennedy
TEXAS – Melissa Lucio, the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death in Texas, seemed to have hope for a new trial in July of 2019 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned a Texas court ruling and found Lucio’s right to a “complete defense” had been violated in her original trial.
But about two years later, this month, the same court nullified that decision upon rehearing and reinstated Lucio’s death sentence.
Lucio was originally convicted in 2008 for the murder of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah. She was sentenced to lethal injection, but has continued to maintain her innocence and appealed her conviction in state and federal courts.
The critical issue in the ongoing appeal revolves around the exclusion of two expert witnesses from the original trial. Lucio’s legal team sought to have a psychiatrist and social worker testify to the personal and psychological challenges Lucio faced.
Together, these interviews could have provided important context for why Lucio may have felt pressured to offer a false confession to child abuse, according to the defense.
The psychiatrist, Dr. John Pinkerman, would have spoken to Lucio’s “personal background and ‘psychological functioning,’” according to the most recent court decision.
The social worker, Norma Villanueva, would explain “why [Lucio] . . . would have given police officer[s] information in [her] statement that was not correct.”
However, the state court barred both witnesses from testifying.
The Texas court excluded Pinkerman on the grounds that evidence about a defendant’s “character and background” are relevant only in the sentencing phase of a capital trial, not in determining guilt.
Separately, the court ruled that Villanueva did not have expertise related to psychology and could not speak to the truthfulness of Lucio’s statements to police.
In July of 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with Lucio’s argument that the exclusion of Pinkerman had “violated Lucio’s right to present a complete defense.” The court reversed the prior decision and moved to grant Lucio habeas relief.
For more than a year, this decision stood, and it looked like Lucio might be granted a new trial and a second chance.
However this same court, this month, nullified this decision and reinstated the death penalty. Importantly, the court’s decision did not focus on whether or not the exclusion of the witnesses impaired Lucio’s defense.
Instead, it argued that Lucio’s case did not meet the “high bar” for federal intervention, requiring the state court to be “so obviously wrong as to be beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement.”
This “high bar” set in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 makes it more difficult for federal courts to re-litigate decisions made in state trials, even if the federal court believes a decision was made in error.
For Lucio, this “high bar” could be the difference between life and death. Lucio is likely to continue to appeal, but for now remains on death row.
Max Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 2016 with a degree in History. He is an intern with the San Francisco Public Defender and most recently worked as a digital organizer with Joe Biden for President.
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