AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a stay of Melissa Lucio’s execution, according to Texas Rep. Jeff Leach. Her execution was scheduled for Wednesday amid growing doubts about whether she fatally beat her 2-year-old daughter in a case that has garnered the support of lawmakers, celebrities, and even some jurors who sentenced her to death.
Lucio was convicted of killing her daughter Mariah in Texas 15 years ago. Her lawyers say new evidence shows Mariah’s injuries were caused by a fall down a staircase. They also believe Lucio may have been coerced into confessing to the murder on the day of her daughter’s death.
Lucio had been set for lethal injection. The execution stay was announced minutes before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had been set to consider her clemency application to either commute her death sentence or grant her a 120-day reprieve.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a request by Lucio’s lawyers for a stay of execution so a lower court can review her claims that new evidence would exonerate her. It was not immediately known when the lower court would begin reviewing her case.
Prosecutors have maintained that the girl was the victim of abuse and noted that her body was covered in bruises. Lucio’s lawyers say Mariah died from injuries she sustained in a fall down a steep staircase several days before she died.
“I am grateful the court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence,” Lucio said in a statement provided by her lawyers. “Mariah is in my heart today and always. I am grateful to have more days to be a mother to my children and a grandmother to my grandchildren. I will use my time to help bring them to Christ. I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf.”
Since the conviction, five of the 12 jurors have publicly said that if they had known about the new evidence, they would not have sentenced her to death. They’ve asked that she get a new trial. “I was wrong to sentence Melissa,” juror Johnny Galvan said on April 12. “I pray it is not too late to right the wrongs.”
Lucio’s attorneys say her capital murder conviction was based on an unreliable and coerced confession that was the result of relentless questioning and her long history of being sexually, physically, and emotionally abused. They say Lucio wasn’t allowed to present evidence questioning the validity of her confession. Her lawyers also contend that unscientific and false evidence misled jurors into believing Mariah’s injuries could have been caused only by abuse and not by medical complications from a severe fall.
“It would have shocked the public’s conscience for Melissa to be put to death based on false and incomplete medical evidence for a crime that never even happened,” said Vanessa Potkin, one of Lucio’s attorneys who is with the Innocence Project. “All of the new evidence of her innocence has never before been considered by any court. The court’s stay allows us to continue fighting alongside Melissa to overturn her wrongful conviction.”
In its three-page order, the appeals court asked that the trial court in Brownsville that handled Lucio’s case review four claims her lawyers have made: whether prosecutors used false evidence to convict her; whether previously unavailable scientific evidence would have prevented her conviction; whether she is actually innocent; and whether prosecutors suppressed evidence that would have been favorable to her defense.
A spokeswoman for Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, whose office prosecuted the case, did not immediately return an email seeking comment. During a sometimes contentious Texas House committee hearing on Lucio’s case this month, Saenz had said he disagreed with Lucio’s lawyers’ claims that new evidence would exonerate her. Prosecutors say Lucio had a history of drug abuse and at times had lost custody of some of her 14 children.
Lawmakers rallied around Lucio, signing letters and asking the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to intervene in her execution. Both a supermajority in the Texas House and a group of 20 Texas Senators have sent letters to the board. A bipartisan group of state lawmakers traveled this month to Gatesville, where the state houses female death row inmates, and prayed with Lucio.
“New evidence that has emerged since Ms. Lucio’s trial points to the fact that her daughter, Mariah, died after a tragic accident and not by her mother’s hands,” said the senators in their letter on April 14. “A commutation or a reprieve would give her lawyers the time they need to develop all the evidence that could prove Ms. Lucio’s innocence.”
Lucio’s cause also has the backing of faith leaders and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, and it was featured on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” One lawmaker, El Paso Democratic state Rep. Joe Moody, tweeted that he was relieved for Lucio. “A stay confirms what we’ve said all along,” he wrote. “Melissa Lucio shouldn’t be on death row.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.