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Texas Judge Recommends Overturning Woman's Death Sentence Due To Withheld Evidence

A district judge who previously presided over a woman’s capital murder case recommended last week that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturn Melissa Lucio's 2008 conviction after a district attorney’s office admitted that prosecutors withheld evidence from her defense, The Texas Tribune reports. After a jury sentenced Lucio to death for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter, the Cameron County district attorney and Lucio’s legal team cosigned court filings that found key evidence, which included interviews with Lucio’s other children, was suppressed by prosecutors at the time of the case. Lucio was charged in the death of her daughter, Mariah Alvarez, who died in the hospital after she was found unresponsive in the bedroom where she had been sleeping. Bruises, scratches and what seemed to be a bite mark on her body led police investigators to believe Mariah was killed. Her death was later determined to be caused by blunt-force head injury. The prosecutors’ case centered around an ambiguous “confession,” which police obtained after hours of interrogation, that Lucio had abused her daughter. Lucio has since recanted that admission.

Five of Lucio’s children who were interviewed immediately after the young girl’s death told a Child Protective Services investigator that their mother was not abusive toward them or Mariah, according to court filings. One of her children told the investigator that they witnessed Mariah fall down the flight of stairs in their Harlingen apartment and corroborated Lucio’s account of her daughter’s injuries and declining health in the days after the incident. But prosecutors did not share those interviews in full with the defense during the trial, which Lucio’s lawyers and the Cameron County district attorney now say was a violation of her constitutional due process rights. The two parties said that the withholding of evidence entitles Lucio to relief from her death sentence. Jordan Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said it's “exceptionally rare” for the prosecution and defense to agree on findings of fact that prosecutorial misconduct occurred during a trial. Lucio’s case, which Steiker described as a combination of bad forensic evidence and the withholding of exculpatory evidence, is one of those rare examples of a district attorney’s office acknowledging an error in court.


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