Melissa Lucio’s case highlights police missteps in questioning abuse survivors, consultants say

Hours after Melissa Lucio’s 2-year-old daughter died in 2007, Texas Rangers took Lucio to an interrogation room the place they yelled at her, threatened her and confirmed her photos of her lifeless little one, her attorneys stated.  

The Rangers believed Lucio had killed Mariah on Feb. 17, 2007, saying that her unwillingness to make eye contact and her slumped shoulders had been indicators of guilt, based on a clemency petition filed on March 22. An appeals court docket opinion detailed how an investigator stated he “knew she did something” due to her demeanor.

The hourslong interrogation ended with Lucio being coerced into confessing, her authorized crew has stated, arguing that her previous experiences with bodily abuse and sexual assault made her prone to taking accountability for her daughter’s demise although, they stated, she was harmless.

The Texas Rangers didn’t reply to repeated telephone calls and emails for remark in regards to the case.

Lucio is now preventing to cease her April 27 execution date

Experts who’ve studied false confessions and trauma response stated Lucio’s conduct is widespread in abuse victims and criticized the Rangers’ interrogation techniques.

Melissa Lucio
Melissa Lucio holds her daughter Mariah. Lucio, who’s an inmate on Texas demise row, is ready to be executed on Apr. 27, 2022 for the 2007 demise of Mariah.Family picture by way of AP

“What victims learn to do in these relationships in order to survive the abuse or violence is they learn to capitulate, they learn to comply, they learn to appease. So you respond to threats, you respond to violence, you respond to demands, you respond to the escalating voice by saying, ‘Yes, yes, I’ll do it,'” stated Mindy Mechanic, a forensic psychologist and professor emeritus at California State University, Fullerton. “If you think about what’s happening in an interrogation, that’s a very parallel process.”

Lucy Guarnera, an assistant professor on the University of Virginia who research false confessions, stated regulation enforcement typically makes use of “behavioral lie detection” methods that have a look at an individual’s actions to predetermine innocence or guilt. 

But this may be detrimental as a result of “a lot of trauma symptoms look like these behavioral cues of lying,” Guarnera stated. 

Interrogated for greater than 5 hours

As famous within the appeals court docket opinion doc, one of many investigators described Lucio’s conduct.

“When I walked in, she was not making eye contact with the investigator. She had her head down. So right there and then, I knew she did something,” he stated. “And she was ashamed of what she did, and she had a hard time admitting to officers what had occurred. That’s what crossed my mind.”

The investigator went on to say that he knew Lucio wished to admit “because she’s giving that slouched appearance.”

Details about what allegedly occurred within the interrogation room had been additionally outlined within the clemency petition. It said that Lucio, who was pregnant with twins, was questioned by two armed detectives for greater than 5 hours. The detectives shouted at her, berated her for being a neglectful mom, and implied that if Mariah’s demise was not her fault then it needed to have been considered one of her youngsters, based on the petition.

At one level, a ranger obtained inside inches of Lucio’s face and stated there was proof that didn’t look good, the petition said. He then informed Lucio that he would “help” her if she informed him what he already knew. 

The detectives additionally handed Lucio a doll and requested her to show what occurred, based on the petition. They implied that if she didn’t confess, she would not be allowed to attend Mariah’s funeral. 

Lucio asserted her innocence greater than 100 instances — by verbally saying 86 instances that she didn’t kill Mariah and by shaking her head no 35 different instances, the petition stated.

As the interrogation dragged on, Lucio informed detectives that she had hit Mariah up to now, however didn’t say she killed the little woman. “What am I going to say? I’m responsible for it,” she stated, based on the petition. During her trial, these statements had been offered to the jury as her confession.

Lucio has stated that her daughter — who had a situation that brought on her foot to be turned in — fell down a flight of out of doors stairs because the household was getting ready to maneuver to a brand new condominium. Mariah was crying however didn’t seem to have any severe accidents, Lucio stated. She died two days later. 

Prosecutors, nevertheless, painted a special image. Court paperwork present that prosecutors argued at Lucio’s trial that she had repeatedly abused Mariah and killed her by hitting her within the head.

The district legal professional’s workplace stated in a press release to the Brownsville Herald that Mariah had been “severely beaten,” had “bruises in various states of healing covering her body” and had lacking parts of her hair. Lawyers for Lucio deny these claims and say the bruising was a results of the autumn.

“Her autopsy revealed bruised kidneys, a bruised spinal cord and bruised lungs,” the D.A. stated, including that an emergency room physician stated it was the “absolute worst” case of kid abuse.

Abuse victims extra prone to falsely confess

Lucio, born in Lubbock, Texas, endured years of abuse and violence, based on her attorneys. At 6 years previous, she was sexually assaulted by considered one of her mom’s companions, her authorized crew stated within the clemency petition. 

She allegedly suffered abuse by a number of companions that continued all through her teenage years and into maturity.

As a end result, she suffers from post-traumatic stress dysfunction and dissociation, based on her authorized crew. Lucio additionally has a lower-than-average IQ. Experts stated these circumstances are all danger elements that make an individual extra prone to falsely confess.   

“People generally confess falsely to get out of the interrogation room,” Guarnera stated. “Interrogation is also a very cognitively demanding task so you need to be listening, you need to be parsing the truth and falsity of the information, you need to be thinking about your future options and consequences.” 

Trauma victims who dissociate could not absolutely grasp the severity of the scenario they’re in so “they’re not going to be able to track and pay attention as carefully and this can make you potentially prone to accepting suggestions from officers,” Guarnera stated.

“You can see this in Melissa Lucio’s case. She kind of just regurgitates it back, she says the same thing as they said to her because that’s the easiest way out,” she defined.  

Mechanic agreed, describing dissociation as a coping mechanism.

“This is a woman who has a history of being threatened, being yelled at,” she stated. “If those threats in the interrogation are a trigger and she checks out, it can again be easy for her to just say whatever because she’s trying to cope with what feels like a present threat.”

Shanda Crain, who was convicted of killing her dad and mom in 1995 in Washington Parish, Louisiana, stated in an educational paper that she discovered similarities between her case and Lucio’s. According to The Marshall Project, Crain, who maintains her innocence, wrote that she had flashbacks to her abusive husband when she was being yelled at by a detective. She stated she believes she falsely confessed partially due to a realized concern of violence.

Attempts to achieve Crain had been unsuccessful.

Trauma-informed interviewing

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, a Virginia-based affiliation for police leaders, has a information on the most effective practices regulation enforcement ought to comply with for profitable trauma-informed interviewing. Among the information is to make the sufferer really feel secure, prepare for an advocate to be current within the room, specific compassion and never interrupt the sufferer. 

The Office of Justice Programs, an company of the U.S. Department of Justice that focuses on crime prevention by means of analysis and growth, stated in a published report on interviewing home violence victims that detectives ought to “give credibility to the victim without expecting a high level of cooperation.”

Guarnera stated these are wonderful tricks to comply with, however identified that detectives typically do the other after they imagine somebody is a suspect and never a sufferer. 

“I think there’s this thought or belief that if we give up the accusatory, guilt-presumptive, coercive style of American interrogations, it’ll have bad consequences and we won’t be able to convict people,” she stated. 

Guarnera stated she believes a follow utilized by police in Europe, known as the Peace mannequin, would assist individuals in conditions just like Lucio’s.

The mannequin was developed with the assistance of psychologists and takes a nonconfrontational method to interrogations. Detectives by regulation are additionally not allowed to deceive suspects. Andy Griffiths, a former senior investigating officer with the U.Ok. police, wrote in a 2012 article that the Peace mannequin trains officers to concentrate on “probing a suspect’s account” as an alternative of making an attempt to drive a confession.  

“There are already police departments around the world who have this more investigatory, fact-finding model,” Guarnera stated. “You’re not making this firm division between a victim and suspect … because a lot of times you don’t know at the beginning who’s a victim and who’s a suspect.”

As Lucio’s case hangs within the steadiness, a gaggle of bipartisan Texas lawmakers led by Republican Rep. Jeff Leach is pleading with Gov. Greg Abbott and different elected officers to cease her execution. On Wednesday, they visited Lucio at Mountain View Unit in Gatesville.

“We promised #MelissaLucio and her family we’d do everything we can do to prevent this irreversible injustice from taking place later this month,” Leach wrote Thursday on Twitter. “And we intend on keeping that promise.”

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