After shedding light on Drancy, a French housing project that served as a concentration camp during the Holocaust in “The Silenced Walls,” Sabrina Van Tassel delivered a multi-faceted portrayal of Melissa Lucio, the first Hispanic woman on death row in Texas in her new feature.
“The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” which is having its world premiere as part of the postponed Tribeca Film Festival, isn’t another true crime documentary, even though the narrative is supported by a wealth of material, including police and court files, archives, as well as interviews with key family members, lawyers, prosecutors and even a private detective.
Lushly lensed and scored with acoustic guitar, the cinematic documentary compellingly explores the life journey and psyche of Lucio, her broken childhood, the abuse she endured, her relationships with mother and siblings. This provides some context into the tragic turn that Lucio’s life took 13 years ago, when she was convicted for the daily abuse and subsequent death of her two year-old daughter.
Van Tassel told Variety that she met Lucio years ago when she was working on a TV documentary about women on death row, and quickly understood that Lucio didn’t fit the profile of a homicidal mother. Van Tassel then reached out to Lucio’s lawyer who agreed to hand her out the entire files of Lucio’s cases.
“I spent two months reading CPS documents, the trial, the testimonies, watching the seven hours interview at the police station. After reading more than 3000 pages, I saw nothing that pointed to Lucio’s guilt,” said Van Tassel, who was also moved by this woman’s extreme solitude and despair as she had not seen her children in more than a decade.
Suspecting a miscarriage of justice, the helmer said she “started filming right away in a panic,” knowing that Lucio could be executed within nine months.
“We had no financing, so I put the money upfront, rented a camera, enlisted my cinematographer (Cyril Thomas, with whom she’s made dozens of films), took plane tickets and started from there,” said Van Tassel, adding that the filming was a tedious process as they were only allowed to interview Lucio one hour every three months under tight monitoring.
That constraint, however, led Lucio and Van Tassel to start writing each other letters – more than 200 over the last couple years — and ultimately forge a strong bond.
Other challenges stood in the way, including getting Lucio’s fearful family to speak, or meeting Lucio’s then-appointed lawyer and prosecutor in her case. “They kept hanging up on me. I finally met (the court-appointed lawyer and prosecutor) after spending weeks hanging out at the Brownsville court house,” said the helmer.
Lucio’s case has evolved in several ways since the start of filming. Indeed, after having all her appeals denied for 11 years, Lucio recently saw her case reversed by a three-judge panel at the 5th circuit court of appeals. But shortly after, the State of Texas appealed that decision. A 16-judge panel was supposed to listen to the arguments again at the end of May, but due to the coronavirus crisis, Lucio’s last appeal will be “strictly paperwork,” explained 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,” said Van Tassel.
The film was produced by Isaac Sharry for Vito Films, and Van Tassel for Tahli Films, alongside Philippe de Bourbon for Andaman Film.