Citing trial court interference in her right to present a defense, a federal appeals court has overturned the conviction of a Texas mother who was sentenced to death on charges that she had murdered her two-year-old daughter. In an unpublished, unsigned opinion issued on July 29, 2019, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said that trial court rulings that blocked Melissa Elizabeth Lucio (pictured) from calling an expert witness to challenge the reliability of statements she gave to police violated Lucio’s right to present a “complete defense.” The appeals court reversed a federal district court decision that had upheld Lucio’s conviction and death sentence and returned the case to the lower court to grant Lucio a new trial.
The prosecution alleged that Lucia had physically abused her daughter, Mariah, over a period of time and that the child had been beaten to death by her mother. Lucia’s lawyers contested the cause of death, presenting expert testimony from a neurosurgeon that Mariah may instead have died from head trauma caused by falling down a flight of stairs. The primary evidence implicating Lucio was a recording of statements she made to police during lengthy interrogation the night her daughter died. During that interrogation, Lucio admitted to spanking Mariah, but denied ever having abused her. Late into the night, after hours of continuous interrogation, Texas Ranger Victor Escalon pressured Lucio to say more. She responded with: “I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m responsible for it.” When Escalon later asked her about specific bruises on her daughter’s body, Lucio said, “I guess I did it. I guess I did it.”
The prosecution characterized Lucio’s interrogation as evidence that she had abused her daughter, and therefore must have killed her. Lucio’s lawyers sought to present testimony from a psychologist to explain the coercive effect of the police interrogation on Lucio, whom Dr. John Pinkerman described as a “battered woman” who “takes blame for everything that goes on in the family.” The trial court barred Pinkerman from testifying, asserting that his testimony was irrelevant because Lucio had “denied ever having anything to do with the killing of the child.”
The Fifth Circuit rejected the factual and legal basis for the trial court’s finding, holding that the exclusion of the evidence was “of such a magnitude or so egregious that [it] render[ed] the trial fundamentally unfair.”