The mother of 13 surviving children, including twins she was forced to give up after giving birth in prison, has insisted from the beginning that Mariah was hurt after accidentally falling down a flight of stairs.
Lucio's case has drawn attention from politicians, celebrities, and the national media after flaws in her case cast doubt on her guilt. Five of the jurors who convicted Lucio have asked the state parole board and Gov. Greg Abbott to stop her execution. And her children are pleading for mercy and fighting for her life.
Chapter 1: What happened to Mariah Alvarez?
It was a February day 15 years ago when the family of 2-year-old Mariah Alvarez called 911 after the toddler was found unresponsive in their South Texas apartment.
Lucio and her children told police that Mariah, the youngest of 12 kids, had accidentally fallen down the stairs a couple of days earlier. But police suspected the child had been killed after they found several bruises, scratches, and what appeared to be a bite mark on her body. Mariah’s death was later determined to be caused by a blunt-force injury to the head.
Lucio, the main suspect from the beginning, stood by her story during a lengthy, late-night interrogation the night of her daughter's death and into the next morning. Exhausted and pregnant with twins, Lucio broke down and admitted she had spanked and bitten Mariah.
“What do you want me to say? I’m responsible for it,” Lucio said when a Texas Ranger pushed her on the apparent bite mark on Mariah’s back, according to the Texas Tribune. Her supporters believe her confession of abuse was coerced.
Lucio never confessed to killing her daughter or causing her head injury, but the other admissions led police and prosecutors to charge her with capital murder.
At trial, Texas Ranger Victor Escalon told the jury he knew right away that Lucio was guilty based on her body language and demeanor when he questioned her.
“Right there and then, I knew she did something,” Escalon said from the witness box.
On July 10, 2008, a Cameron County jury convicted Lucio and sentenced her to death.
Juror Johnny Galvan Jr. testified at a recent hearing to call for a new trial.
"I am now convinced that the jury got it wrong, and it's too much doubt to execute Ms. Lucio," Galvan said. "If I could take back my vote, I would. I would be haunted by Ms. Lucio's execution if it goes forward."
Galvan also said he felt pressured by other jurors to sentence Lucio.
Jury forewoman Melissa Quintanilla has also had a change of heart.
“The trial left me thinking Melissa Lucio was a monster, but now I see her as a human being who was made to seem evil because I didn’t have all the evidence I needed to make that decision,” Quintanilla said in an affidavit to the parole board. “Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and for a new jury to hear this evidence.”
Chapter 2: Melissa Lucio was victim of abuse
Lucio's own childhood was a nightmare, according to the Innocence Project, which has joined her legal team.
They say Lucio's earliest memories as a child growing up in Lubbock are of her mother being abused by her partner. Lucio says she was sexually assaulted and abused by older relatives beginning at age 6. She left home to escape the nightmare and married at 16. At the time of Mariah's death, Lucio had 12 children between the ages of two and 15.
The judge at Lucio's trial didn't allow a psychologist to testify about her history of sexual abuse as a child or domestic violence as an adult.
"Coerced false confessions are a leading cause of wrongful conviction and even more prevalent among women wrongly convicted of killing a child," according to the Innocence Project's website.
Supporters say women who've been abused are especially vulnerable to coerced confessions, especially when questioning is aggressive and prolonged.
Dental molds, finger nail clippings and Lucio’s ring were taken to seek matches to injuries on Mariah’s body, but none of the evidence was ever tested, according to trial testimony. With Lucio’s interrogation statements in hand, the prosecution didn’t need to test for things like DNA, the district attorney, Armando Villalobos, said at trial.
Villalobos would later be sent to federal prison for corruption in his office that occurred around the time of Lucio’s trial. He was caught accepting bribes for going easier on defendants in other cases.
Chapter 3: Prosecutor under pressure
The current Cameron County prosecutor, who set Lucio's execution date, has been under pressure to intervene.
District Attorney Luis Saenz has the option to withdraw his request to set the execution date. Until this week, Saenz insisted that he stood by the process that led to Lucio's conviction.
But after hearing from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle during the emotional hearing in Austin, Saenz relented. If the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals or Abbott doesn't stop the execution, he said he would withdraw his request.
“If defendant Lucio does not get a stay by a certain day, then I will do what I have to do and stop it," Saenz said.
Chapter 4: Supporters on both sides
Democrats and Republicans in the Texas Legislature don't agree on much these days, but lawmakers from both sides of the aisle believe Lucio's execution should be halted. In fact, there's a bipartisan effort to grant clemency to the woman who's scheduled to become the first-ever Latina executed by Texas.
State Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, and chair of the interim Criminal Justice Reform Committee, said the lawmakers would hold Saenz to his word.
“My understanding of his remarks to the committee were that if we don’t get a stay or clemency issued … then he will step in and withdraw his request for an execution date,” Leach said after the hearing, the Texas Tribune reported. “That was unequivocal to the committee, and we got it on tape.”
Photos: Melissa Lucio case
Dozens of state lawmakers have also signed a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking it to act in Lucio's case. The letter cites significant doubts about "Ms. Lucio’s guilt, her disparate treatment compared to her husband and co-defendant, who received a four-year sentence, and the impact her execution will have on her supportive family and faith community."
“As policymakers, we have an obligation to stand up and speak out, especially those of us who consider ourselves to be pro-life, pro-women, and pro-law and order,” said State Rep. Lacey Hull, a freshman Republican from Houston. “As much as we all want justice for Mariah, the facts simply do not support any conclusion that Ms. Lucio committed capital murder and is deserving of the ultimate punishment.”
State and federal courts have dismissed Lucio’s petitions at almost every step of the appeals process. For the prisoner’s lawyers, as well as a majority of judges on a conservative federal court, some of those rejections shine a light on broader problems with the death penalty and how hard it is for courts to overturn even weak convictions.
“To these eyes, this case is a systemic failure, producing a train of injustice which only the hand of the Governor can halt,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan to the conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote in a footnote of the court’s latest denial for Lucio last month.
Chapter 6: Hollywood joins the cause
Lucio's case has gotten attention from national news organizations and Hollywood.
Kim Kardashian has also expressed support for Lucio and has signed the petition urging Abbott to stop her execution.
"After she called for help, she was taken into custody by the police. Melissa is a survivor of abuse and domestic violence herself and after being interrogated for hours and falsely pleaded guilty. She wanted the interrogation to end, but police made her words out to be a confession," Kardashian wrote.
She goes on to say that she signed a petition herself, urging Gov. Greg Abbott to stop Lucio's execution, which is scheduled for April 27.
"It’s stories like Melissa’s that make me speak so loud about the death penalty in general and why it should be banned when innocent people are suffering," said Kardashian.
Kardashian, who has been studying law, passed California's first bar exam in December of 2021, according to CNN, and has spoken on behalf of other prisoners.
Chapter 1: 'I know she's innocent
Lucio's children, siblings, and mother are traveling the state and working tirelessly to shine the spotlight on her case.
"I mean, I believe God is the one that’s pushing me. I mean, I’m running on fumes," John Lucio told KHOU 11 News reporter Melissa Correa after testifying at the hearing.
John, who was 15 when his youngest sister died, believes his mother is innocent -- not only of causing Mariah's death but of abusing her.
"I know she's innocent," John said. "My mother was a woman that lacked discipline in our family, which we very much needed. She didn't know what discipline was. We were spoiled kids. She was not a woman of abuse."
John said his mother's defense attorney did a poor job and believes there was corruption involved in her case.
"I mean, if we had the money, my mother wouldn’t be on death row," John said.
He said his mother has received thousands of letters and she's thankful for the support. She was stunned to learn that Kardashian has been advocating on her behalf.
"She was like, 'Mijo stop lying. Stop playing,'" John told us. "She was just in shock. She was amazed. She was just in awe."
He said his mother, who gets dozens of letters of support daily from all over the world, is praying for her supporters and wishes she could respond to them all.
As the clock ticks toward April 27, Lucio and are loved ones are praying that the people in power are paying attention and will take action before it's too late.
The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.