Prosecutor pushes back against Texas House committee requests to halt execution

HOUSTON (AP) — On Tuesday, members of a Texas House committee repeatedly pressed a prosecutor to use his authority to stop the April 27 execution of a woman whose conviction is in question at the amid growing doubts over whether she fatally beat her 2-year-old daughter.

But in a sometimes contentious hearing, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz initially resisted calls from lawmakers to ask a judge to recall Melissa Lucio’s death warrant, suggesting the beginning that he didn’t have the authority to do so, then saying later. there was no legal reason for him to act as various appeals courts are still considering claims in his case. He later said he believed the execution would be stopped.

“I think the (Texas Criminal Court of Appeals) will issue a stay and that’s how the system works,” Saenz said.

But lawmakers on the Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform expressed frustration at the meeting in Austin that Saenz would not hit the pause button himself.

“Washing your hands to make this decision yourself is very shocking to me,” said state Rep. Jeff Leach, chairman of the committee.

Saenz pushed back, saying he disagreed with Lucio’s attorneys’ claims that there was new evidence that would exonerate him.

“I’m not washing my hands of it. I’m dealing with it and there are tough decisions to be made. You don’t agree with me, but that doesn’t mean I’m washing my hands of it. hands,” Saenz said.

Saenz later said that if an appeals court did not take action to stop Lucio’s execution, he would work to delay it so that the various legal actions pending in the case could be reviewed.

State Rep. Joe Moody said he believes that if there are any mistakes in a case, “it’s a prosecutor’s duty and moral responsibility to right those wrongs.”

But Saenz disagreed, saying the courts “call the mistakes, not me”.

Tuesday’s hearing was led by Leach and Moody, who are part of a bipartisan group of more than 80 Texas House members who are troubled by Lucio’s case and believe new evidence shows she is not beat his daughter Mariah to death in 2007 in the town of South Texas. Harlingen.

Last month, lawmakers sent a letter to the state Board of Pardons and Parole and Governor Greg Abbott asking them to grant a stay of execution or commute his sentence.

Leach and Moody were among a group of seven lawmakers who visited Lucio on women’s death row in Gatesville, Texas last week.

Prosecutors argued that Mariah had been the victim of child abuse because her body was covered in bruises. A medical examiner testified that Mariah died from a blow to the head. Authorities say Lucio had a history of drug addiction and at times lost custody of some of his 14 children.

But lawyers for Lucio say jurors never heard any forensic evidence that would have explained that Mariah’s various injuries were in fact caused by a fall down a steep flight of stairs. They also say Lucio was not allowed to present evidence challenging the validity of her confession, which they say was given under duress after hours of relentless questioning.

Several jurors in his trial also expressed doubts about his conviction.

One of those jurors, Johnny Galvan Jr., appeared before the committee. In a statement that was read by his daughter, Galvan said he believed Lucio’s attorneys had failed to present relevant evidence in his case and that he felt pressured by other jurors to condemn to death.

“I will be haunted by the execution of Ms. Lucio if it continues,” Galvan said.

Earlier Tuesday, attorneys for Lucio announced that a fifth juror had questioned the conviction. A substitute juror also expressed doubts.

“I believe Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and a new jury to hear this evidence. Knowing what I know now, I don’t think she should be executed,” Melissa Quintanilla, the jury foreperson, said in an affidavit.

Saenz said his office contacted the other seven jurors who convicted Lucio and six of them did not change their minds while the seventh died.

After the committee meeting, Sonya Alvarez, one of Lucio’s sisters, said her family was encouraged after hearing Saenz say he would stop the execution if the courts did not act.

“We just hope … that he will do the right thing and allow this new evidence to come forward,” Alvarez said.

Lucio, 52, would be the first Latina executed by Texas and the first woman since 2014. Only 17 women have been executed in the United States since the Supreme Court lifted the death penalty ban in 1976, the latest in January 2021.

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