HOUSTON - The seven Texas lawmakers who traveled hundreds of miles to update death row inmate Melissa Lucio on their efforts to stop her execution were also able to connect with her through embrace and prayer.
State Rep. Joe Moody said that although they were initially told Wednesday's visit would have to be non-contact according to the rules for death row inmates, the lawmakers ultimately were allowed to be in the same room with Lucio and were even able to hug her.
The 40-minute visit began with Rep. Toni Rose leading the group in prayer. Moody said he asked Lucio to lead the final prayer that ended the meeting. Inside a white room at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, the lawmakers and Lucio sat in chairs formed in a circle, closed their eyes and bowed their heads. Lucio’s prayer touched on the peace she has reached between believing she did not fatally beat her 2-year-old daughter but also accepting her likely execution, Moody said.
"And so, our prayer surrounded that. Our prayer uplifted the people that have cared for her in prison. Our prayer uplifted those who are going to make decisions regarding her life and that felt very fitting," said Moody, a Democrat.
The lawmakers say they are troubled by Lucio’s case and believe her April 27 execution should be stopped as there are legitimate questions about whether she is guilty. They also say her case could be a catalyst for reviewing death row policies, including rules on contact visits, and possibly even a discussion on whether to abolish the death penalty in Texas.
Lucio was convicted of capital murder for the 2007 death of her daughter Mariah in the South Texas city of Harlingen.
The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Lucio, has declined to comment ahead of the execution. But prosecutors have said Mariah was the victim of child abuse as her body was covered in bruises. A medical examiner testified Mariah died from a blow to her head. Authorities say Lucio had a history of drug abuse and at times had lost custody of some of her 14 children.
But Lucio’s lawyers say jurors never heard forensic evidence that would have explained Mariah’s various injuries were actually caused by a fall down a steep staircase. They also say Lucio wasn’t allowed to present evidence questioning the validity of her confession, which they allege was given under duress after hours of relentless questioning. Several jurors at her trial have also expressed doubts about her conviction.
Tivon Schardl, one of Lucio’s attorneys, said they were "deeply moved" by the lawmakers’ visit.
Access to inmates by lawmakers and other government officials is allowed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice so officials can "carry out their responsibilities," said agency spokesman Robert Hurst.
State Rep. Jeff Leach said that during their visit on Wednesday, the lawmakers held Lucio's hand, prayed with her and listened as she read aloud a letter she had written.
In her letter, Lucio thanked Leach and the other lawmakers for their efforts and reasserted her innocence.
"And if I thought for a second that my death could or would bring Mariah back, I would not think twice. What my death would do is leave my remaining children without a mother and that cannot be what justice is about," Lucio wrote.
Leach, a Republican, said he’s been a supporter of the death penalty in the most heinous cases. But he said there are "deep and substantive and substantial" problems with how the death penalty is carried out in the state and Lucio’s case is the "most shocking, the most problematic" example of this.
"To say I’m wrestling with the very existence of the death penalty in Texas would be a dramatic understatement," Leach said.
Leach and Moody are part of a bipartisan group of more than 80 Texas House members who have sent a letter to the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Greg Abbott asking them to grant an execution reprieve or commute her sentence.
Moody said he hopes the emphasis on mercy that comes with the upcoming Easter celebration will be considered by the paroles board and Abbott as they make their decision.
"And my hope is that weighs heavily upon the situation that we’re seeing today because we may not deserve that mercy but we get it, we get it, and I think Melissa should get it in this case," Moody said.
Lucio, 53, would be the first Latina executed by Texas and the first woman since 2014. Only 17 women have been executed in the U.S. since the Supreme Court lifted its ban on the death penalty in 1976, most recently in January 2021.