Right now, Melissa Lucio is on death row. Her execution date is April 27, 2022. If executed, she will be the first Latina put to death in Texas. My husband, Aaron, and I recently hosted a gathering of Melissa’s family and supporters, talking, praying, and processing what to do and how we can act beyond the efforts of the legal community.
Melissa has been on death row for fifteen years for the alleged murder of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah, who fell down a flight of stairs and died of brain injuries two days later. In January 2021, Melissa received her execution date. Melissa’s lawyers believe in her innocence and are working against the odds to get a fresh look at the evidence. The only evidence against Melissa is her confession, which was given under duress after seven hours of police interrogation in the middle of the night. Melissa was pregnant with twins, and instead of being able to grieve her daughter’s death, she was accused of a crime.
The hope is to advocate for a new trial. Last year, a panel of judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned her conviction and death sentence, which should have resulted in a new trial. Instead, the State of Texas appealed to all 17 judges on that court, which voted 10-7 to reverse the order, reinstating the conviction and death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the case.
As the lawyers try everything they can, the only option left is the court of public opinion, which is how Melissa’s son, sisters, mother, cousins, and others came to be sitting in our church. We provided a space to screen a film about the case, The State of Texas vs. Melissa, and Sabrina Van Tassel, the film’s director, led a conversation about the current situation.
The death penalty is complicated. I get that, and many Christians either have really hardened views on the topic or avoid it completely. But we as Christians need to address the topic of the death penalty and have deeply nuanced approaches to it because Scripture takes it seriously. On the one hand, the Bible does speak on capital punishment (Gen 9:6). On the other hand, it says a great deal about the certainty of guilt (Deut 17:6; Num. 35:30), intent (Numbers 35:22-24), and due process (Numbers 35; Deut 17). We cannot just wholesale argue that Scripture permits or prohibits the death penalty. Instead of having a heavy hand bent toward capital punishment, we must weigh the factors of each incident and respond accordingly.
Capital punishment is a decision that should not be taken lightly. When someone on death row pleads their innocence, we should pay attention and not simply give the system the benefit of the doubt. We should investigate, research, and get involved, especially if it’s a case in our state. Yes, many folks on death row say they’re innocent, but some of them really are. Over 1500 people have been killed on death row since 1976, and at least 186 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have now been exonerated and freed. That’s approximately 12%!
Church, we cannot be silent if an innocent person’s life is at risk. We must raise our voice to demand due process and indisputable evidence of guilt and intent. There are times when we must fight for retrials and new trials. We must be sure. These are image-bearers we’re talking about.
You can sign Death Penalty Action’s petition asking the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Greg Abbott to watch the film, The State of Texas vs. Melissa (available on Hulu and Amazon Prime). You can also call the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles at 512-404-5852 and Governor Greg Abbott at 512-463-2000 with the message: “Please watch ‘The State of Texas vs. Melissa” and grant her clemency.”
We are still learning about Melissa’s case. But I encourage you to go to FreeMelissaLucio.org and learn too. Then pray. Pray for God’s justice to be done and for TRUTH to be made clear. God has created the church to be an institution for social good, so we must also put our faith into action while we pray. To advance God’s kingdom on earth and pursue his vision of holistic shalom means we cannot avoid what’s happening on death row.
Visit FreeMelissaLucio.org to rent the film, host a screening, sign the petition, print fliers to share, and contact the Texas authorities who can halt this injustice. An in-person screening sponsored by Hope Community Church & Death Penalty Action, will be held at 7pm CST on Tuesday, March 8th, at Memorial UMC, 6100 Berkman Dr. in Austin, TX. In honor of International Women’s Day, the film may also be seen for free at FreeMelissaLucio.org on March 7th & 8th.