November 28, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Sabrina Van Tassel
Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas, the documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” features a group of Hispanic and white people from the working-class and middle-class discussing the case of Texas death-row inmate Melissa Lucio, who was convicted in 2007 of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Maria, but has proclaimed that she is not guilty of the crime.
Culture Clash: The documentary raises questions about Lucio’s guilt and suggests that Lucio’s race and financial disadvantages played big roles in her not getting good legal counsel.
Culture Audience: “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” will primarily appeal to people who are interested in criminal-justice issues, particularly those affecting women or people of color.
There’s an old saying that prisons are full of innocent people, because so many prisoners claim they didn’t commit the crimes that landed them in prison. The riveting documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” makes a compelling case that Melissa Lucio, the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death row in Texas, is really telling the truth when she says that she didn’t murder her 2-year-old daughter Mariah. Melissa was convicted of this crime in 2007, but the documentary exposes far-reaching and troubling aspects of the case demonstrating that, at the very least, Melissa should get a new trial.
“The State of Texas vs. Melissa” director Sabrina Van Tassel makes a statement in the movie’s production notes that she made the movie with the firm belief that Melissa is not guilty of the murder that landed Melissa on death row. In the statement, Van Tassel (who is from France) says that she originally intended to do a documentary about five women on death row in the United States. Van Tassel remembers: “Oddly, Melissa’s story was the one that I was the least drawn to,” because of Melissa’s troubled past as a drug addict with a history of neglecting her kids.
However, in the statement, Van Tassel says that she changed her mind after meeting with Melissa: “I knew instinctively that she was telling me the truth. That her story was full of facts that had never been explored. In her eyes, I saw all the flaws of the American judicial system which tends to get rid of the most vulnerable defendants.”
Even though Van Tassel admits this bias up front, and even though there are many prisoners who are very skilled con artists and liars, the director approaches the documentary not as a gullible crusader but as an investigative journalist determined to get to the truth, no matter what. The documentary looks at both sides of the argument over Melissa’s guilt or innocence in this horrific crime. And the movie uncovers disturbing evidence and eyewitness statements that were never brought up in Melissa’s original trial.
Melissa (who is incarcerated in Gatesville, Texas) participated in this documentary, as did some of her family members, who are divided over thinking that she’s guilty or not guilty. A few of the family members have never been interviewed on camera. Also interviewed are attorneys and other people who are either involved in the case or have some type of inside knowledge about the case.
Speaking about how her imprisonment has devastated her family, Melissa says in the documentary: “I’ve lost … years without my children. Some of them have memories of me, and some of them don’t. It’s confusing … because I don’t understand how the court system could have done this to me.”
After Melissa was sent away to prison, Melissa’s eldest daughter Daniela took primary responsibility for raising her then-underage siblings. Daniela, who has nine children of her own, is interviewed in the documentary. She is one of her mother’s biggest defenders and advocates.
One person who is not interviewed is former Texas district attorney Armando Villalobos, who prosecuted the case. In 2014, he was convicted of bribery and extortion for accepting more than $100,000 to illegally tamper with cases that happened before Mariah’s death. He was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison.
The details of Villalobos being exposed as an unethical D.A. are included in the documentary, including an interview with assistant U.S. attorney Michael J. Wynne, the lead prosecutor in the case against Villalobos. The implication is clear: If Villalobos was busted for bribery over several cases, then how many other cases did he illegally tamper with where he wasn’t caught?
Melissa’s case gets even more complicated with what could be shady agendas, because Melissa’s original defense attorney, Peter Gilman, now works for the Texas district attorney’s office. Gilman gets some criticism in the documentary for giving incompetent legal services to Melissa. And now that Gilman works for the D.A.’s office, it raises questions over how much he has invested in not wanting any of his alleged botched legal services to be brought up in court if Melissa gets a new trial.
Who is Melissa Lucio and how did she end up on death row? Born on June 18, 1969, she is a divorced mother of 14 children. She lived primarily in Harlingen, Texas, where the crime occurred. And her life before she was convicted of murder was one filled with poverty, chaos, drug addiction and domestic abuse.
The documentary doesn’t try to portray her as a saint, because it includes details over Melissa’s admitted addiction to cocaine and how some of her kids were temporarily taken away from her by child-protective services. The children were taken away from her after reports that the kids were homeless, neglected, and relying on school for food and hygiene needs. When the kids did have a home, there were also complaints from neighbors that the household reeked of marijuana smoke.
According to what Melissa says in the documentary, temporarily losing custody of some of her kids happened while she and her then-husband Guadalupe Lucio (the father of her five oldest children) were in the depths of their cocaine addiction. Melissa says she was often the victim of domestic abuse by Guadalupe, who is not interviewed in the documentary. Mariah’s father is not mentioned or interviewed in the documentary. Melissa eventually got clean from her cocaine addiction, but her life got turned upside down when she was convicted of murdering Mariah, who died of blunt-force trauma to the head on February 17, 2007.
The prosecution’s main evidence against Melissa was the confession that she made in police custody. That videotaped confession, which is partially shown in the beginning of the documentary, was a false and coerced confession, according to Melissa and her attorneys. The video includes Melissa giving a damning demonstration of how she supposedly killed Mariah. And when a police officer showed her photos of her dead child, Melissa says, “I wish it was me, not her.”
Melissa has recanted the confession and claims that Mariah died after falling down a flight of stairs. Melissa claims she’s not responsible for Mariah’s fatal tumble. However, forensic pathologist Dr. Norma Jean Farley, who examined Mariah’s body, says in the documentary: “This was the worst case of child abuse I’d ever seen. There were bruises everywhere.”
Thomas Young, a forensic pathologist who examined the evidence and autopsy findings of Mariah, says that “the bruising is a result of the brain injury. All of a sudden [previous injuries] started to show up.” Melissa claims that she never abused Mariah. If Melissa didn’t do it, then who did?
The documentary’s most chilling interview is with Melissa’s daughter Alexandra, who was a teenager when Mariah died. Alexandra coldly admits that she was often physically abusive to her younger sister Mariah and was jealous of her. “I guess you can say I didn’t feel like she was my sister,” Alexandra says in the documentary. Alexandra also says that she doesn’t know who killed Mariah.
Litigation specialist Norma Villanueva gave an affidavit that Alexandra admitted to a social worker that Alexandra was responsible for Mariah falling down the stairs. Other family members believe that Mariah’s tumble down the stairs wasn’t an accident and that she was deliberately pushed. However, in her documentary interview, Alexandra claims to have no memory of this confession. Gilman, who was Melissa’s defense attorney at the time, told Villanueva not to disclose Alexandra’s confession to the police or prosecution, according to Villanueva’s affidavit.
Melissa’s family members who believe in her innocence say in the documentary that one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in the case was that neither the defense nor the prosecution bothered to interview the children who were at home at the time of Mariah’s death. And both sides never fully investigated any other possible suspects, even if another suspect or person of interest might be in the same family.
Robert Alvarez, one of Melissa’s sons, was 8 years old when his mother was sentenced to death row. He says in the documentary: “They didn’t actually ask any of us kids who were there when it happened. My mom wasn’t a violent person.” Alvarez believes that his mother suspected Alexandra of being the real culprit, but that in order to protect Alexandra, Melissa made the false confession.
In the documentary, it’s clear that Melissa regrets the confession and now believes that, at the very least, Alexandra was the one who caused the bruises found on Mariah’s body. Melissa’s advocates say that one of the biggest mistakes that the police and prosecution made was automatically assuming that Melissa could have been the only one in the household to commit that abuse. But that raises another question: How could Melissa not see that Mariah was being physically abused, since the abuse left several bruises on the child?
To understand the mentality of someone who would let this kind of dysfunction take over her life, the documentary includes an interview with Dr. John Pinkerman, a psychologist who has interviewed Melissa. Pinkerman says, “She had a history of really inadequate men entering her life and being exploitative, abusive, and who were very troubled individuals who were doing illegal things, including drug dealing. She was caught up in that maelstrom. She didn’t meet the criteria of mothers who kill their children.”
Melissa also talks about her abusive background. She says that she got married at 16 years old “to escape my childhood. I was molested by my mother’s boyfriend.” Melissa says that when she told her mother about the boyfriend’s sexual abuse, her mother didn’t believe her, and that lack of support devastated Melissa.
Melissa’s mother is briefly interviewed in the documentary. She doesn’t comment on these allegations, of sexual abuse, but she believes that her daughter didn’t commit the murder. Melissa’s brother Rene says that Melissa’s childhood trauma led Melissa down a self-destructive path, and he comments on Melissa’s addiction to cocaine: “Her demons took over everything she had.”
Melissa sister Diane says about Melissa: “She was a very loving person, but she had a rough life. Melissa was a good person. I never had a disagreement with Mel—not that I remember, even as an adult.” Diane also says that their sister Sonya would often fight with Diane and Melissa. It might explain why there’s still some lingering bad blood between Melissa and some of her siblings,
And not all of Melissa’s siblings on her side with this murder case. Her sister Esmerelda, who is in the movie, believes that Melissa is guilty. Sonya stops short of saying on camera that she thinks Melissa is guilty, but she doesn’t exactly praise Melissa either. Sonya says that Melissa was always ashamed of being poor: “I don’t even think Melissa ever owned a piece of new furniture … She felt she was the black sheep [of the family].”
It’s highly unlikely that Melissa is thinking about what kind of furniture she had before she was locked up in prison for murder. Her priority is righting the wrongs that she says happened to her in this case. Melissa’s appellate attorney Margaret Schmucker says in the documentary that there is “no evidence that Melissa was physically abusive.”
But what happened to Mariah still haunts Melissa, who says she sometimes has dreams of Mariah being alive and doing things like playing dress-up with Melissa. “I often think about my daughter Mariah,” Melissa comments. “There are days where I wish I could leave this place and be with Mariah.”
The documentary aims to show that in Melissa’s murder case, it wasn’t just a corrupt prosecutor who was capable of doing damage. Several people in the documentary accuse Melissa’s former defense attorney Gilman of unethically mishandling the case. Some of Melissa’s children who were home at the time of the murder have gone on record in this documentary and elsewhere to give statements about what they saw and heard. However, Gilman never called any of Melissa’s children to testify in her trial.
Lynn Marie Gracey, a private investigator who worked on Melissa’s appeal has this to say about Gilman: “I think the guy knew that he sabotaged the case so bad that he didn’t want anybody to rework it, re-investigate it. My gut told me that it was all messed-up.”
In the documentary, Gracey claims that she once confronted Gilman about why he didn’t further investigate Melissa’s admittedly abusive daughter Alexandra as a likely suspect. Gracey says that Gilman told her, “Why would I want to ruin a teenager’s life? She wasn’t my client anyway.” And then Gracey says that Gilman abruptly ended the conversation.
Gilman is interviewed in the documentary, and he doesn’t adequately explain his actions in the case. For example, during the trial, he didn’t raise any reasonable doubt by showing evidence that someone else could have committed the crime. It’s a strategy that any good defense attorney is supposed to have. In the documentary interview, Gilman doesn’t even attempt to hide that he didn’t respect Melissa as a client or as a person. These negative feelings probably affected how he handled the case.
Gilman describes Melissa as “very docile” but adds: “It was very difficult to defend somebody who didn’t seem to want to have a defense attorney there. She was not a good mother. Did she kill her child? I don’t know.”
As for why he never called any of Melissa’s children to testify on her behalf in the original trial, Gilman gives this excuse: “I didn’t feel that any of the children would be helpful.” He also describes the children as undisciplined. Gilman says that he figured that if the kids were in the courtroom, they would probably be running around the courtroom and they would upset the jury.
And when it comes to reports that at least one of Mariah’s siblings was physically abusive to her, Gilman would only say “that sounds about right.” But he also says that he “doesn’t remember” all the details of those reports, and he claims that he didn’t have access to the family’s social-services records.
People who know about criminal-justice cases know how hard it is for someone convicted of murder to be exonerated. That’s because most prosecutors don’t want to admit that the case could have been mishandled by overlooking evidence or even tampering with crucial evidence. The state also usually doesn’t want to spend the money to re-try a case.
Alfredo Padilla, a prosecutor in Texas’ Cameron County, is one of the people who thinks justice was served with Melissa’s murder conviction and sentencing to death row. Padilla says in the documentary: “The case was defended well. The system worked … Don’t blame the decision. Don’t blame the attorneys … She has no one to blame but herself. She put herself there. Whose fault is it that she’s there, if it’s not hers?
An update to Melissa’s case is mentioned in the movie’s epilogue, and it’s a clear indication that there are indeed serious questions being raised over Melissa’s conviction. This update won’t be revealed in this review, but there are plenty of news reports about what happened after this movie was filmed, if people want to find out the latest developments.
“The State of Texas vs. Melissa” does an impressive job of presenting different perspectives of this very complicated case. It’s a cautionary tale of how difficult it can be for defendants to overcome a recanted confession, even if there’s evidence suggesting that someone else committed the crime. It’s also a sobering example of how someone’s socioeconomic status determines the quality of their legal services and therefore the outcome of a case. This documentary about Melissa Lucio is completed, but her case represents a quest for justice that will never be over as long as there are convicted prisoners who are appealing their cases.
FilmRise released “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on September 3, 2020, and on digital and VOD on October 20, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is January 19, 2021.