A Death Sentence

Amos Lassen

Melissa Lucio tells the camera that “The State of Texas wants to kill me” in the opening minutes of Sabrina Van Tassel’s documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa. Lucio”. She has been on Texas’ death row since 2008 for the killing of her 2-year-old daughter.

Lucio’s story is not new— every year, Black and brown Texans appeal death sentences because of poor trial defense, a history of abuse and poverty, and mental health issues, all of which should keep them from being executed. Some are probably innocent but he state nor the courts rarely side with the prisoner. Texas is the state with the highest number of executions in this country.

Lucio, from Harlingen in South Texas, is believed to be the first Latina woman sentenced to death in Cameron County. Her case is filled with ineptitude and corruption. Ironically, the film shows us the natural beauty of Texas alongside its messed-up legal system Texas’ unfiltered natural beauty alongside the cruelty of its legal system through interviews with Lucio’s family (her now-grown children, her siblings, and her mother) along with interviews with her appellate attorney, her trial attorney, and a private investigator. We see other parts of the story are told through film footage that includes arious interviews following the child’s death and clips from Lucio’s near-seven-hour interrogation and of her children being asked to discuss their home life. We see that the children are calm, nervous, and well-behaved  yet Lucio’s trial defense attorney insisted her kids were wild and would not have behaved in a courtroom. 

Director Van Tassel who both wrote and directed the film focuses on Lucio and her family as well as gives us a look at poverty. We also see the inhumanity of the  death penalty.  We cannot help but wonder whether Melissa be on death row if she were white or wealthy, if she could’ve afforded a lawyer who called even a witness to speak on her behalf. It seems that poor lawyering is part of the criminal justice system and it has failed failed Lucio or, at worst, framed her for a death she didn’t commit.

“Are you a cold blooded killer or just a frustrated mother?” One of three cops demand of Lucio during her interrogation; they ask her to show them how she beat her daughter. She repeats, “I don’t hit my children.” Her confession, which acts as the film’s prologue, showcases how the system treats poor brown women. Though it’s a gut-wrenching story, The State of Texas vs. Melissa, works hard to offer viewers the smallest semblance of hope.

Melissa has been a death row inmate for the last 11 years, convicted of beating and murdering her two-year old daughter Mariah. She is waiting for her final appeal. Her story is an example of justice that has been rendered incorrectly. Her case was filled with questionable strategies by her lawyer, uneasy and unfair interrogations and a legal system that opposed her from the start.  

Melissa was molested at a young age, married at sixteen, attached to problematic and manipulative men, and later was either homeless or living in various of two-bedroom apartments with her large family. She was an easy target for a conviction that villainized showing how society often turns troubled victims and the poor into just another number on a prison roll. We see footage of her interrogation during which authorities denied her food and water and showed her pictures of her dead daughter’s bruised body.

From the first sequence, we see that a false confession was forced by the police team during which she was uncomfortable and did not believe what she is saying. It is hard to believe that either she would have done this or that she could even do this and not other children in her home be effected by it.  This is a clear case of a mistrial. Melissa had  no representation to help her be judged fairly and her social class, gender and race made it that much worse.
It isheartbreaking to see the lack of support she receives from her family or closest friends. Her mother and kids have done nothing to get her help or to try and appeal the cases. Everything that Melissa is doing is through her own research and communication.

Here we really see the systemic issues that remain in the legal and justice systems. The film makes a strong case that the death penalty should not exist especially due to the irreversible nature of the process when many innocent people have been exonerated after their time has gone.

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