“How would you spank her?”
In grainy video footage of an interrogation, a Texas Ranger grills Melissa Lucio, a forty-year-old mother who is slumped in a chair, with an exhausted and vacant look in her eyes.
“Show me how you would do it,” he says, and he sets a baby doll on the table in front of her.
For several minutes, Lucio, who waived her right to have a lawyer present, slaps the baby doll’s back as the officer urges her to continue, seemingly trying to get her to hit the doll harder and harder. “I mean, I wouldn’t pound on her,” she protests a bit.
He shows her pictures of her toddler’s dead body, covered in bruises, and asks her what goes through her head when she looks at the grim photos.
“I wish it was me that got hurt,” Melissa says, and starts to cry.
“It’s 3:15 a.m.,” the cop replies, “and that will end the interview.”
This is how The State of Texas vs. Melissa begins. Newly released on Amazon and other streaming platforms, the unsettling documentary by French director Sabrina Van Tassel raises questions about the conviction of Melissa Lucio, the first Hispanic woman on death row in Texas. Lucio was found guilty of abusing and killing her two-year-old daughter, Mariah, in 2007.
The state argued that Lucio confessed to a pattern of abusing Mariah and to inflicting fatal blows to the child’s head. Lucio maintains that she’s innocent, asserting that the confession law enforcement elicited from her in the film’s opening scene—she admitted to causing many of the child’s injuries, but not to killing her—was coerced after a five-hour interrogation the night her child died.
This story is an important one, filled with the legal missteps that so often plague death row cases, and that can cost lives. The film gives important details about Lucio’s life and presents a plausible alternative explanation for Mariah’s death, but the jumbled narrative fails in its attempt to make the strongest possible case for Lucio’s innocence.
Born into poverty in the Rio Grande Valley city of Harlingen, Melissa Lucio has had a difficult life. She was sexually abused as a young child, and she got married at age sixteen “to escape,” as she says in the film. Lucio has fourteen children, and she and her kids relied on free meals at Loaves & Fishes to get by. She struggled with a cocaine addiction, her family says, and Child Protective Services removed some of her oldest children because of neglect. At one point, CPS documented that the family had been homeless for at least a month.
Lucio’s oldest daughter, Daniela, tells the filmmakers what she saw happen on the night Mariah died: the family was moving apartments, and Mariah took a bad fall down some rickety wooden stairs outside the apartment as the family was leaving. One of Mariah’s feet was turned in, the family said, which made her prone to falls.
In court documents, Lucio said the toddler seemed okay after the fall. Lucio said that she didn’t want to tell her husband, who would have berated her, so she didn’t seek medical care for Mariah that night. Instead, an ambulance was called after it was too late, and Lucio ended that night admitting to deliberately causing many of Mariah’s injuries.
There have been other high-profile death penalty cases in which parents convicted of killing their children have been exonerated. In Mississippi, an all-white jury convicted Sabrina Butler, a Black woman, of murdering her nine-month-old son in 1990. Under duress, she had confessed to hitting her child, but was later exonerated after she successfully argued that the baby’s injuries were a result of her trying to resuscitate him when she found him not breathing. In California, Vicente Benavides was freed in 2018 after serving 26 years in prison on death row for sexual assault and murder of a 21-month-old baby. A court found that his conviction was the result of false forensic testimony, and that the child’s body bore no evidence of sexual abuse; rather, her injuries were consistent with those caused in a car accident.
With these troubling stories in mind, along with the well-known phenomenon of false or coerced confessions, it’s surely possible that Mariah’s death could have been an accident, even if her mother had previously abused her. But because of the film’s meandering pace, where important pieces of information often feel arbitrarily dropped in, it’s hard to get a clear picture.
Although voice-overs in documentaries can be cheesy, the film could have used, at the least, an interview with a local journalist who covered the case to help with the exposition, address the conflicting theories, and serve as a skeptical viewer, all of which would ultimately strengthen the arguments Van Tassel makes. Instead of having a clear articulation up front of the dueling theories of the case, the film lets the facts emerge bit by bit, which could be a deliberate narrative choice but at times feels like evasion.
For instance, the prosecution found that Mariah had bruises in various stages of healing on her body, as well as bite marks, bald spots from where her hair was pulled out, and evidence that “one of her arms had been broken probably about two to seven weeks before her death.” But none of this is explicitly mentioned in the film; rather, we hear several times early on that Melissa’s family members and her lawyer did not see her as a violent person. Had Van Tassel raised the prosecution’s case early, these defenses of Lucio could address these harrowing allegations head on. Instead, viewers who google the case might be left thinking they didn’t get the full story.
More than halfway through, the documentary poses the theory that one of Lucio’s older children, Alexandra, could have been responsible for Mariah’s injuries and that Lucio tried to cover for her. In an affidavit, a social worker who interviewed Alexandra quoted her as saying that she was “the reason Mariah fell down the stairs.” On camera, Melissa Lucio says that she took the blame for Mariah’s injuries in order to protect Alexandra. “I figured that if I said that I did it, that they wouldn’t do anything to Alex,” she says in tears. This wasn’t brought up at trial, which does seem like a big oversight of what’s likely the most compelling defense of Lucio against the toddler’s long-standing injuries.
We then watch several family members point the finger at Alexandra before she gets a brief chance to refute the accusations in the film. “I didn’t really have a bond to Mariah … I guess I could say that I didn’t feel like she was my sibling,” Alexandra says as she pats her own baby on her lap. “I didn’t hit her, no, I mean like not in a forceful way, I mean maybe like a spanking because we would be the ones to discipline our brothers and sisters … But not like, you know, I know what my family have said or what everybody else thinks,” as she pats her own baby on her lap. It comes off a bit creepy, and it’s hard to tell if the family is scapegoating the young woman.
The film makes a stronger argument, however, when it scrutinizes the legal system that convicted Lucio. The district attorney who prosecuted the case, Armando Villalobos, was convicted of bribery and extortion in 2014 for accepting more than $100,000 in exchange for favorable outcomes in criminal trials, in a scheme predating Mariah’s death. He’s currently serving thirteen years in federal prison. Then there’s the raw footage of the interrogation itself, which is clearly coercive, and at times hard to watch.
The State of Texas vs. Melissa also suggests that Lucio may not have had a fair chance to defend herself at trial. The film says that her lawyer, Peter Gilman, didn’t call as witnesses any of the children, who’d seen Mariah fall down the stairs, nor did he bring up Alexandra’s admission to the social worker. “I didn’t feel like any of the children would be helpful,” he tells the filmmakers. “She was not a good mother,” Gilman says of Lucio. “Did she kill her child? I don’t know.” A private investigator on the case notes in the film that Gilman became a Cameron County prosecutor after the trial. “If anybody would have told me I was going to go and work for the district attorney, I would laugh and say, you’re crazy,” Gilman responds in the film.
Van Tassel succeeds at building empathy for Lucio, but the film struggles to provide deep insight on a personal level. Although interviews with Lucio’s children, her mother, and her sisters give the clear sense that Melissa’s family wants her home, it never really feels like the family members get comfortable enough with the filmmaker to be truly vulnerable.
In one long sequence, Lucio’s son Bobby goes to visit her for the first time in a decade. We follow along in the car ride to the prison near Waco where female death row inmates are held, and the visit doesn’t happen on camera, likely because the rules for media visits are different from the rules for family visits. The next scene is of Bobby debriefing with his aunt in their hotel room that night. But even that exchange lacks the weight of their real feelings; it feels awkward, and viewers don’t get a clear sense of what their meeting was like.
Some of the strongest moments in the film come from Lucio’s own poignant words, which she delivers through plexiglass at the Mountain View Unit. She describes a recurring dream in which Mariah asks her mother to paint her nails, comb her hair, and put on her dress. “There are days that I feel like I could just leave this place and just be reunited with Mariah,” she says, “and tell her that I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to protect her—and that I failed her, I failed her in many ways.”
At the end of the film, title cards reveal that Lucio won her appeal in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last year, overturning her conviction. During her trial, Lucio’s lawyers wanted to put on the stand a psychologist named John Pinkerman, who is interviewed in the film. He hoped to testify that Lucio was susceptible to making a false confession because she had battered woman syndrome, often considered a type of PTSD. The trial court didn’t allow Pinkerman to take the stand; the Fifth Circuit ruled that this was an error and that she was deprived of her constitutional right to a complete defense. She’ll likely receive a new trial; a date has not yet been set. Tacking this important development—with few details—onto a rushed ending cements the odd pacing of the film. As a result, the tragic story of Melissa Lucio and her daughter receives an empathetic telling that nevertheless fails to do adequate justice to the gravity and complexity of the case.