A top prosecutor in Texas, repeatedly pressed by state lawmakers to delay death row inmate Melissa Lucio’s looming executionpushed back during a Tuesday hearing at the state Capitol, saying he questioned claims that Lucio was innocent.
District Attorney Luis Saenz also insisted that any delay to Lucio’s April 27 execution would have to be determined by the courts, where several late legal challenges remain to play out.
“I stand by my duty until I’m told otherwise by some court that may still issue a stay,” he said.
But after two hours of questioning and cajoling by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Saenz appeared to relent toward the end of his testimony at the committee hearing, saying he will move to delay Lucio’s execution if the courts decline to step in or the Board of Pardons and Paroles rejects calls for clemency.
“If Melissa does not get a stay by a certain day, then I will do what I have to do and stop it,” Saenz, who testified remotely, told the House Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform.
State Rep. Jeff Leach vowed to hold Saenz to that promise — particularly after the district attorney spent most of the hearing rejecting calls for a delay.
“We’re going to find a way to hold you accountable for that. I trust what you’re saying. I have no other choice now, in this moment, to trust what you’re saying,” said Leach, who has emerged as one of Lucio’s most vocal advocates.
Leach and the committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Joe Moody were among a bipartisan group of 83 Texas House members who last month signed a letter urging Gov. Greg Abbott and the parole board to delay Lucio’s execution so new evidence could be reviewed that raised doubts about whether the woman killed her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah, in 2007.
The letter was sent shortly after Lucio’s lawyers submitted an extensive clemency petition arguing that Mariah was not murdered but instead died two days after an accidental fall down steep stairs caused unseen internal injuries.
The petition cited nationally recognized scientists and forensic specialists who reviewed the evidence and concluded that prosecution experts were wrong when they testified that the child’s bruises could only have been caused by physical abuse that occurred shortly before her death.
Defense lawyers also blamed her confession on pervasive domestic abuse and childhood sexual abuse that left Lucio vulnerable to coercive police tactics.
The petition included statements from four jurors who sentenced Lucio to death in 2008 but now support clemency, saying the new information raised important questions about her guilt.
On Tuesday, Lucio supporters filed an updated clemency application that included support from a fifth juror, the foreperson, Melissa Quintanilla.
“I was disheartened to learn that there was additional evidence that was not presented at trial,” Quintanilla said. “I believe that Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and for a new jury to hear this evidence.”
Tuesday’s Capitol hearing also heard testimony from another juror, Johnny Galvan Jr. of Brownsville, who said “there is too much doubt” to go forward with Lucio’s execution.
“The idea that my decision to take another person’s life was not based on complete and accurate information in a fair trial is horrifying,” Galvan said in a statement read by his daughter as he stood nearby in the Capitol hearing room.
Several lawmakers on the committee pressed Saenz to acknowledge the change of heart by jurors, but the prosecutor said his office contacted six other jurors who stood by their verdict, while the last remaining juror has since died, he said.
Saenz said his office was reviewing the claims put forward in Lucio’s clemency petition but also said he disagreed with conclusions of innocence based on new “so-called experts,” the theory that the child was injured in a fall and the theory that Lucio’s confession was coerced.
Still, Saenz expressed confidence that the courts will delay Lucio’s execution, noting that more than a dozen legal challenges remain, including a request for a stay of execution that is pending at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and several other issues that are awaiting action in the federal courts.
Such a scenario typically leads to a court-ordered delay to allow all issues to be resolved, he said.
“I hope you’re right,” Leach said. “I pray you’re right.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism