Courtesy of Cornell Cinema

November 8, 2021

Questioning Justice in the Face of Death: ‘The State of Texas vs. Melissa’

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“It’s confusing because I don’t understand how the court system could have done this to me,” Melissa Lucio said in a voiceover in The State of Texas vs. Melissa. “The state of Texas wants to kill me.”

The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide sponsored the screening of this award-winning, 2020 documentary by filmmaker Sabrina Van Tassel at Cornell Cinema on Nov. 1. 

The documentary focuses on the case of Melissa Lucio, a woman convicted for the 2007 death of her two-year-old daughter Mariah. As of 2021, Melissa has been on death row for 13 years. Melissa suffered immense trauma in her life, including sexual assault beginning at age six. Melissa married at just 16 years old; she said in the film she wanted “to escape” her childhood. 

The film is full of features from Melissa’s family. I found the most compelling interviews to be from her children, who interacted with Melissa — mother of 14 — the most leading to her lock up. The children in the film describe Melissa in a positive light, citing no violent behavior towards her kids, but rather a love for her kids that they feel today. It’s puzzling that none of the children were called as witnesses in Melissa’s case, which is one example of the many facts the film presents displaying ineffective assistance of counsel.

The film was remarkable in highlighting the numerous flaws in Melissa’s death sentence. The documentary showed many of the legal system’s faults through Melissa’s case, including an unethical district attorney seeking reelection, plausible abuse towards Mariah from her sister and a lawyer who disgustingly discounted plentiful evidence that could have changed the outcome of Melissa’s case. It seems there are countless reasons Melissa should not have spent the last 13 years of her life fearing an execution date. 

While the film succeeded in unearthing the deep flaws in Melissa’s case, I would have liked to see more information on how her Latina identity and poverty-stricken life came into play. I also found the end of the film unsatisfying — I was left with the unsettling feeling that the film did not paint the whole story.

Luckily for me, the screening was followed by a discussion with members of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, who stayed to answer the audience’s many questions. Members included Prof. Sandra Babcock, Cornell Law, and founder of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, and Cornell Law students, who are all currently working with Sandra Babcock on Melissa’s case. 

The members were committed to answering all questions, and the audience kept them coming. I especially appreciated hearing more about how trauma-informed legal practices are instated, but constantly ignored. The documentary highlighted how the legal system never accounted for the psychological weight put on Melissa as a result of her trauma.

The panel also stressed the violation of Melissa’s human rights.

“We don’t tend to use the language of human rights in this country to talk about things that happen in this country. We often think of human rights as something that is external to the United States,” said Arisa Herman, Cornell Law student. “We are using the language of human rights to show that what is happening to Melissa is very much that the United States on a fundamental level is violating her human rights,” Herman continued. “This is a fundamental miscarriage of justice and can not stand.” 

“I think what makes [Melissa’s case] so outrageous is you can see how had this evidence been presented it would have changed the outcome of the case,” said Sandra Babcock.

The film brings to light the larger issues with the death penalty in the United States. The film even describes how Melissa was offered a plea deal of 30 years, but she declined and went to trial. It is puzzling to see how the same legal system that determined that a woman could have been let off in 30 years, can sentence the same woman to death. 

“There is an enormous amount of coercion people are under to plead guilty,” said Babcock.

The State of Texas may want to kill Melissa, but Melissa articulates that perhaps, there is a glimmer of hope. 

It’s hard to move on when in life I have no role.

With everything being too hard, you’d think I’d just give up.

But the only thing about being at the bottom is the only way is up.

The justice system in the United States is flawed and leaves little room for anyone to tell their whole story. Melissa, an impoverished Latina woman, has been stuck in the rut of the system for over a decade and may end her life there. This film documented her story, but it draws the question of who is to fight for the countless others holding their breath on death row.
On Oct. 18, 2021, the Supreme Court declined to hear Melissa’s case, so Melissa is at risk of the State of Texas setting her execution date. Visit Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide to delve deeper into their work.

Gillian Lee is a Freshman in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at [email protected].