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Reasonable doubt: The role of stereotypes in a Texas woman’s case

by | Apr 15, 2022 | Wrongful Convictions

If her conviction isn’t reconsidered, Melissa Lucio is expected to be executed on April 27. If that happens, she will be the first Latina to be executed by the state of Texas.

She was convicted of murdering her daughter Mariah, but some experts believe no crime was even committed. The death may very well have been an accident. How do we explain the conviction? At every step, Melissa may have fallen victim to hunches and stereotypes.

Two-year-old Mariah fell down some steep stairs outside her apartment complex in February 2007. Two days later, Mariah became unresponsive and was taken to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead. The cause of death was listed as “blunt force head trauma.”

Although it seems entirely possible that Mariah’s head injury came from falling down the stairs, the police suspected fatal child abuse. The reason? They didn’t like Melissa’s demeanor after Mariah’s death. She was “extremely calm for the situation,” said an EMT. A detective said Melissa was “slouched’ and “not making eye contact.” The officers took this as shame.

Can the police tell you’re lying just due to your demeanor? Many people, including police, believe that non-verbal behaviors and demeanor can reveal that someone is lying. However, the science shows that non-verbal behaviors are poor predictors of lying. Additionally, police tend to be no better than others at spotting deception, but they tend to be overconfident in their ability to do so.

The police interrogated Melissa for hours when she was sleep-deprived and still in shock from losing her child. They repeatedly minimized the situation, which has been shown to produce false confessions. Around 3:15 a.m., despite countless denials, Melissa said, “I guess I did it.”

A police officer was present during the autopsy, which could have inserted bias. The medical examiner concluded, based on multiple bruises, the head injury, and a weeks-old bone fracture, that Mariah had been severely abused.

Yet that potential for bias could have been important. Some research has shown that doctors interpret childhood injuries as abuse much more often when they know the child’s parents are poor, welfare recipients or drug users, all of which were true in this case.

After Melissa was convicted and sentenced to death, the prosecutor in her trial was convicted of bribery and extortion in an unrelated case.

The case seems full of holes, but the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review Melissa’s case last October.

Recently, half of the Texas House has asked the governor to stop the execution. So have five of the jurors from her trial. The Innocence Project has posted an online petition asking Texas to review the case.

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