In spite of world premiering at Tribeca Film Festival in 2020, ranking among Hulu’s most watched documentaries and garnering high profile support, Sabrina van Tassel’s “The State of Texas vs Melissa” hasn’t yet succeeded in pivoting the fate of Melissa Lucio.
The first Hispanic woman sentenced to death row in Texas, Lucio has been in prison for 14 years and was just given an execution date for April 27. Lucio was blamed for the abuse and subsequent death of her two-year-old daughter which she has claimed was accidental.
Van Tassel’s documentary shows how Lucio was coerced by a Texas Ranger to make incriminating statements after hours of questioning. Based on a thorough investigation conducted by van Tassel over several years, the docu reveals how the system was stacked against Lucio — from the court-appointed attorney who withheld certain evidence, to the District Attorney, who is serving a sentence for bribery and corruption.
Lucio’s conviction was overturned in July 2019 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, but the State of Texas immediately appealed that ruling. In February, a court of appeals reversed the 2019 grant of relief by a vote of 10 to 7. In August 2021, a group of ex-prosecutors, joined by 16 anti-violence organizations including The Innocence Projet filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review Lucio’s case but in vain.
Since the documentary bowed at Tribeca and played at a flurry of international festivals, Lucio has received support from many prominent figures, notably Jason Flom who invited van Tassel on his podcast Wrongful Conviction, as well as the popular Civil Rights activist Dolores Huerta, Susan Sarandon and the org The Innocence Project. Many local news outlets and institutions in Texas, including the Texas Observer, have also highlighted the cracks in Lucio’s case, suggesting that the death of her daughter may not have been a murder. The region of Rio Grande Valley, where Lucio was judged, has been plagued by other dubious cases, notably Carlos DeLuna who was executed in 1989. DeLuna’s tragic story is told in the Netflix documentary “The Phantom.”
In France, where the capital punishment was abolished 40 years ago, Van Tassel’s film has received widespread coverage on national TV, radio, magazines and web programs.
After learning that Lucio had been given an execution date, Van Tassel penned an open letter to France president Emmanuel Marcon to seek his help in exonerating Lucio.
Here are some highlights from Van Tassel’s letter to Macron published in the magazine Telerama:
“As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in France, in Texas Melissa Lucio’s fate is in our hands.
In 2019, the fifth circuit court of appeals in Texas had reversed her case on the premise that she didn’t receive a fair trial. She was due to have a retrial or be released. But the State of Texas immediately appealed that decision and an extremely divided court of appeals (7 to 10) put her back on death row. Our last hopes laid in the US Supreme Court but they denied to hear the case.
During the commemoration, you called for a worldwide abolition of the death penalty, adding that it was for you and for us all, « a combat for all mankind » to lead « as Europeans » in 2022, now that France has the presidency of the European Union. A fight to make sure that all those who do not have a voice, the disinherited, do not end up executed by lethal injection.
There are over 2500 death row offenders in the US. Many, like Melissa, have exhausted all of their appeals, and can wait years to have an execution date. Due to the numerous conflicts of interest in this case, including the fact that the District Attorney is serving a 13 year sentence for bribery and extortion, we were hoping that the Cameron County District Attorney’s office would take their time. But the opposite happened. Their goal is to kill Melissa as soon as possible. To suppress it. To make it disappear. “
“The State of Texas vs Melissa” was produced by Vito Films and co-produced by Tahli Films, in association with Andaman Films.