A new documentary, “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” directed by Sabrina Van Tassel, is stacking up awards and making headlines. Its subject, death row inmate Melissa Lucio, is now garnering the attention of activists and philanthropists. But before jumping on the bandwagon to save Melissa Lucio, better ask: do you have all the case facts?
The film depicts Melissa Lucio as a sympathetic character, a victim. She is a victim of child sexual abuse, then domestic violence. As her brood of fourteen children grows, she is fraught with depression, then substance abuse. Still, the film assures us, Lucio takes care of her children the best she can, she loves them dearly, and they love her. Then one day, her baby Mariah falls because of faulty apartment stairs and dies as a result. An abusive all-male police haul her in and force her into a false confession. A victim of the criminal justice system, she becomes the target of a defense attorney and crooked prosecutor. Now Lucio is the victim of the Texas legal system, the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death row in Texas, where she has sat for 13 years. Found guilty of abusing Mariah and causing her subsequent death, Lucio is now appealing her sentence.
|This is not to argue Melissa Lucio’s guilt or innocence.|
Constantly “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” reminds us that Lucio is the victim. The documentary questions the fairness of the trial, reiterating on the abuse Lucio suffered in her childhood, her drug abuse, the flotsam life she led with her fourteen children in dire poverty (sometimes sleeping in the park), and the “corrupt” and “unfair” legal system that put her on death row. The filmmakers question the prolonged hours of interrogation by officers “without a break” to “force” a confession, the “mistakes” made by a medical examiner on Mariah’s “bruises,” and the “corruption” of the court. The film fails to mention much of what did put Lucio behind bars, what proof juries heard that made them vote Lucio “guilty” of causing Mariah’s death – the actual victim in this horrific case.
The saga began February 17, 2007, when paramedics were dispatched to an apartment Lucio shared with Robert Alvarez, the father of at least seven of her children. Mariah was discovered “unattended and lying on her back in the middle of the floor not breathing and with no pulse.” No one was making any attempt to hold or assist the baby. Lucio told the paramedics Mariah “fell down the stairs.” Mariah was dead upon arrival at the hospital. As discussed at length in the documentary, Mariah was covered in “bruises in various stages of healing.” Details not mentioned are the bite marks on her back, an arm “broken probably about two to seven weeks before her death, and she was missing portions of her hair where it had been pulled out by the roots,” as noted by the ER Physician. A brief interview with the chief forensic pathologist does appear in the documentary, discussing the “blunt force head trauma” caused by a fist, an object, or slamming, not by a fall. Little Mariah also suffered bruised kidneys, a bruised spinal cord, and bruised lungs. The latter information is omitted or glossed over by much discussion over Mariah’s “fall.”
According to official documents, Melissa Lucio was interrogated from 10:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. Not mentioned in the film: about 12:30 a.m., Lucio told a Texas Ranger she began “hitting” and “spanking” Mariah in December 2006, whenever Lucio “got mad” and then several times “day after day.” The documentary focuses on displaying how she would “spank” Mariah using a baby doll. And nowhere in the documentary is Lucio's confession when she told how she “pinched Mariah’s vagina … would sometimes grab and squeeze Mariah’s arm … bit Mariah twice on the back at different times about two weeks before Mariah’s death … on one occasion bite Mariah on the back for no reason while combing Mariah’s hair.” Lucio told the investigators, “I just did it.” A toxicology test revealed cocaine in the baby’s blood. Lucio also admitted she “would grab (Mariah) by the arm (and) take her down the steps (and) move her around like a rag doll.” On the day Mariah died, Lucio told officers, Lucio feared taking the baby to the doctor because of the multiple bruising, knowing the baby was “sick.”
Why is Lucio allowed to lie on camera, and the truth never brought to light?
The police found paraphernalia for smoking crack cocaine in the house the evening of February 17. When questioned, Lucio would tell police she stopped using cocaine in February 2006, but “(Robert) Alvarez was smoking crack.”
Lucio’s current appellate lawyer, who is working pro bono, says on camera she is unsure if the entire interrogation video was played during the trial. According to the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas, No. AP-76,020, the video was played, and the defense tells the jury, apologizing, “it’s a long, long video.”
Based on rumor, the documentary alludes to Lucio’s daughter as responsible for the baby’s death. There is no mention of Lucio’s phone conversation with her sister, where Lucio was heard saying, “This was me. I did it (killed Mariah).”
Melissa Lucio is interviewed via death row inmate visitation, speaking on a telephone from behind a plexiglass partition. She smiles sadly and recalls the fun times she had with her children. She dreams of “combing Mariah’s hair…putting lipstick on her lips… painting her nails and toenails” and sitting around the dinner table enjoying a meal with her kids saying, “yum-yum, this is good, mom.” Family members are woeful that Lucio is growing older without her children. The forgotten part of the story?
Child Protective Services (CPS) has documented numerous contacts with Melissa Lucio:
1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004: allegations, usually involving neglect and neglectful supervision, were investigated by CPS, and Lucio tested positive for cocaine. Two of Lucio’s newborns tested positive for cocaine.
During one CPS visit "a strong smell of marijuana" permeated the home.
2004: three-week-old Mariah and all the children living with Lucio were removed for physical neglect and negligent supervision. Although Lucio visited Mariah in foster care and all children were returned to her on November 21, 2006, Lucio would admit to police she was not close to Mariah as a result.
CPS observed bugs on the floor and mattress where Mariah slept. A window fan had no cover. There was sparse food, primarily rotten. The home reeked of urine. The children smelled, were filthy, some with dried feces in their genital areas. They all had scratches, bruising, and one had an infected sore with pus. All had open insect bites. Melissa Lucio tested positive for cocaine but denied using.
There was “concern for the children’s safety, (with all children suffering) bruises, scratches, scabs, bites, and general filth.” The children were removed from the home due to “poor physical conditions of the children and the home, the lack of food in the home, the neglectful supervision of the children, past and present drug use, previous CPS history, and no viable voluntary placements for the children.”
2004-2006: Drug tests reveal Lucio testing “17 or 18 positives and about 11 negatives.”
Lucio and her “husband” received $2,400 - $5,000 a month from welfare benefits (including food stamps) and work, but she was using the money to purchase cocaine. They never used the services for rent (the family was constantly evicted), furniture (Lucio’s family members admit she would grub through trash for furnishings), medical care, or food.
And her abusive behavior did not stop once jailed, before trial. Melissa Lucio received write-ups for physical and verbal altercations, possession of contraband, unauthorized communication, inciting a riot, and confrontational behavior towards the staff.
As one example of “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” telling a biased tale, Lucio whines, "I've never been in trouble ... never been arrested." A quick check of her criminal history reveals a DUI. A lie easy to expose. Why is Lucio allowed to lie on camera, and the truth never brought to light?
This is not to argue Melissa Lucio’s guilt or innocence. The problem is how a slanted or biased documentary creates a cause célèbre out of an inmate (à la “Making A Murder’s” Steven Avery) and a bandwagon for “justice” began to roll without knowing all the facts. Before becoming a fan of an incarcerated person and screaming “racist, crooked, system!” know the facts of the case and research beyond the documentary.
Director Sabrina Van Tassel has said of The State of Texas vs. Melissa, “It’s taught me … not to judge hastily.” Oh, really?
Asgarian, R. (November 6, 2020). Did Melissa Lucio, the First Hispanic Woman on Death Row in Texas, Kill Her daughter? An Uneven New Documentary Raises More Questions Than Answers. Texas Monthly. https://www.texasmonthly.com/arts-entertainment/did-melissa-lucio-the-first-hispanic-woman-on-death-row-in-texas-kill-her-daughter-an-uneven-new-documentary-raises-more-questions-than-answers/
Melissa E. Lucio v. The State of Texas (September 14, 2011). No. Ap-76, 020. Cause no. 07-CR-885-B. http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/16/16-70027.1.pdf
Melissa E. Lucio v. The State of Texas (September 14, 2011). No. Ap-76, 020. Cause no. 07-CR-885-B. https://caselaw.findlaw.com/tx-court-of-criminal-appeals/1580437.html
ViewPoints. (N.D.) “The State of Texas vs. Melissa.” Tribecca Film Festival. https://tribecafilm.com/films/state-of-texas-vs-melissa-2020
Van Tassel, S., Director. (January 19, 2021). de Bourbon, P., Sharry, I., & Van Tassel, S. (Producers). “The State of Texas vs. Melissa.” FilmRise.
Van Tassel, S. (October 26, 2020). Following My Instincts. https://www.talkhouse.com/following-my-instincts/