As part of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide’s Her Whole Truth project — which aims to tell the stories of women on death row around the world — Cornell students are raising awareness about the case of Melissa Lucio, the only Latina currently on Texas’ death row.
In 2008, Lucio was convicted of the murder of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah Alvarez. Prosecutors used a grueling interrogation in which Melissa Lucio confessed to biting her daughter as evidence of severe child abuse, but Lucio’s supporters contend that the evidence of bite marks used to convict Melissa Lucio is factually unsupported based on recent scientific consensus. Other evidence used by the prosecution, such as scratch marks and bruising on Mariah Lucio’s body, are also being questioned, as Lucio supporters point to falsehoods in key sections of the testimony of the State’s Medical Examiner, Norma Jean Farley.
Chelsea Halstead MPA ’21, associate director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, said she believes Mariah Lucio died from an unnoticed brain bleed two days after falling down the stairs of her family’s apartment — the same cause of death Melissa Lucio gave paramedics. Halstead said this cause of death was made more likely by Mariah Lucio’s deformed foot and history of falls, as well as her undiagnosed blood coagulation disorder, which could have been the source of bruises that looked like signs of abuse.
Halstead and other Lucio supporters have also argued that, after more than 100 assertions of her innocence, Lucio’s interrogators obtained a false confession through excessive coercion. Only two hours after the death of her daughter, Lucio was interrogated by armed officers from around 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. without food, rest or sleep for roughly 16 hours, all while pregnant with twins.
Lucio’s supporters, as well as experts in false confessions, also find her only confession suspect. After repeated interrogation on a bite mark on Mariah Lucio’s back, Melissa Lucio said, “What do you want me to say? I’m responsible for it.”
“Those words are what land[ed] her on death row,” Halstead said. “There’s no physical evidence linking her to Mariah’s death.”
As a parent with no history of violence or abuse against children at the time of her arrest, Lucio supporters say she never should have been treated as a killer. Although Lucio faced frequent poverty-related Child Protective Services visits, no evidence of violence or abuse by Melissa Lucio against her children was ever documented.
“With armed male police officers aggressively threatening and interrogating her, she had a trauma response, which includes downcast eyes [and] slumped shoulders — far from being symptoms of somebody who’s guilty, these were signs and symptoms of someone who had severe PTSD and who was being triggered by a very brutal, unforgiving interrogation,” Halstead said.
Halstead also argued that the prosecutor and defense attorney on the Lucio case were both under significant pressures that prevented them from adequately executing their roles. Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos — who is currently serving a 13-year federal prison sentence for bribery and extortion — was campaigning for re-election during the case and had been criticized as soft on both murder and child abuse, and Lucio’s attorney went to work for the District Attorney’s office soon after losing the Lucio trial.
“It was kind of a perfect storm,” Halstead said. “[Villalobos] was an incredibly corrupt DA… [and] Melissa had very inept representation at trial. She was given a public defender who really did just an awful job defending her.”
To save Lucio’s life, students in ENGL 3741: Design Thinking, Media, and Community are working with the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide to reach college campuses and voters in Texas through a mixture of community outreach, social media and art.
“The focus of the class is…seeing the ways that storytelling can make an impact on civic engagement and nonprofits,” said Sowmya Venkatachalam ’24, a student in ENGL 3741 and member of Her Whole Truth. “We are much more on the creative side of things than the administrative side.”
Trying to reach Texans from an upstate New York Ivy League has forced students to change their messaging, appealing to the tastes of a group with which many Cornellians don’t often interact: conservative Texans.
Laura Ilioaei, an Ithaca College student taking ENGL 3741 this semester, said that Her Whole Truth works with student artists to portray Melissa Lucio as a family-oriented, traditional woman by using pastel colors, soft features and feminine imagery.
“We’re targeting Texas college campuses to try to convince them to put out campaigns to convince people in [the] government in Texas to prevent this execution from happening,” Ilioai said. “However… our rhetoric is going to be different [when] appealing to Texas just because it’s a different culture.”
Despite the failure of a similar 2020 campaign to save the life of Lisa Montgomery, Cornellians working on the Lucio case are noticing signs of progress. On March 24, a bipartisan coalition of nearly 90 members of the Texas House of Representatives asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to halt Lucio’s execution. Lucio has also received support from the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and local conservative radio host Mark Davis.
“I have immense hope for this case,” Halstead said. “It’s so egregious what’s been done to her, and it’s so clear that she’s innocent, that I really feel strongly that, if we can build enough momentum in the public forum, we’re going to win clemency for Melissa.”
Correction, March 28, 8:13 p.m.: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Mariah Alvarez’s last name was Lucio. This error has been corrected.