By Andrea Thompson
You’d think that sentencing a Hispanic woman to death for the very first time would be a milestone Texas wouldn’t want to achieve, but by the end of the documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” chances are you’ll become convinced that not only did many authorities want this very thing, they were willing to inflict this fate on an innocent woman. Such conclusions are bad enough, but the doc doesn’t just build a good case for Melissa Lucio’s innocence, it states that those authorities, including Lucio’s own lawyer, did this knowingly. That is, they knew Lucio did not commit the crime she was jailed for, the murder of her two-year-old daughter.
To discover just how this unfolded, director Sabrina Van Tassel goes back to Lucio’s childhood, where her abuse by various relatives directly shaped an adulthood plagued by inadequate, exploitative men, poverty, homelessness and addiction. She was, in other words, an ideal target for a system that already viewed her as expendable, and a DA who was running for re-election and wanted to prove he was tough on crime. The alleged abuse that Lucio was accused of inflicting on her daughter was also apparently never witnessed by anyone, either by the family that feels so helpless they would rather forget Lucio than support her, to any of Lucio’s 14 children, who speak of their fondness for their mother and the devastating effects her imprisonment had on them.
It also doesn’t take much for the state prosecutor and the attorney who was supposed to defend Lucio to appall, with the former stating she has no one to blame but herself, and the latter dripping with sexism and racism as he outright states Lucio wasn’t a good mother. Nor does he seem to remember the testimony of one of Lucio’s daughters, who outright admitted she pushed her little sister down the stairs, which would account for nearly all her injuries. It all ended with Lucio sitting behind glass, where she calmly faces the camera and tells her story directly to us after being jailed for 11 years.
That Sabrina Van Tassel is able to convey the bafflingly wide array of information available in a fairly calm and reasonable manner is an accomplishment in itself, even if she loses some of the personal details of Lucio’s life in order to cover more legal ground in a case that’s still unfolding somewhat in real time. Although Lucio’s conviction was reversed after being repeatedly denied, Texas appealed that decision. According to Van Tassel, “If the 5th circuit reverses the case again in favor of the State, (Lucio’s) last hope would be the Supreme Court, but if that fails, she could be executed within a year.” Now that the coronavirus has affected the proceedings, it’s still unclear just how this will end.