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

Hours after Melissa Lucio’s 2-year-old daughter died in 2007, Texas Rangers took Lucio to an interrogation room where they yelled at her, threatened her and showed her pictures of her dead child , said his lawyers.

Rangers believed Lucio killed Mariah on February 17, 2007, saying his reluctance to make eye contact and slumped shoulders were signs of guilt, according to a clemency petition filed March 22. An appeals court opinion detailed how an investigator said he “knew she had done something” because of her behavior.

The hours-long interrogation ended with Lucio being coerced into confessing, her legal team said, arguing that her past experiences of physical abuse and sexual assault made her susceptible to taking responsibility for the death of her daughter even though, they said, she was innocent.

The Texas Rangers did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails to comment on the matter.

Lucio is now fighting to stop his execution date of April 27.

Experts who have studied false confessions and trauma response have said Lucio’s behavior is common among victims of abuse and have criticized Rangers’ interrogation tactics.

Melissa lucio
Melissa Lucio holds her daughter Mariah. Lucio, who is being held on Texas death row, is set to be executed April 27, 2022 for the 2007 death of Mariah.Family photo via AP

“What victims learn to do in these relationships to survive abuse or violence is they learn to surrender, they learn to conform, they learn to appease. So you respond to threats, you respond to violence, you respond to demands, you respond to the rising voice saying, ‘Yes, yes, I will,'” said Mindy Mechanic, forensic psychologist and professor emeritus at the California State University, Fullerton “If you think about what happens during an interrogation, it’s a very parallel process.”

Lucy Guarnera, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia who studies false confessions, said law enforcement often uses “behavioral lie detection” techniques that examine a person’s actions to predetermine innocence. or guilt.

But it can be detrimental because “a lot of trauma symptoms resemble these behavioral cues of lying,” Guarnera said.

Interrogated for more than five hours

As noted in the Court of Appeals opinion document, one of the investigators described Lucio’s behavior.

“When I walked in, she wasn’t making eye contact with the investigator. She had her head down. So, on the spot, I knew she had done something,” he said. he declares. “And she was ashamed of what she did, and she had a hard time admitting to the officers what had happened. That’s what crossed my mind.”

The investigator went on to say that he knew Lucio wanted to confess “because she gives this slouched appearance”.

Details of what allegedly happened in the interrogation room were also outlined in the clemency application. He said Lucio, who was pregnant with twins, was questioned by two armed detectives for more than five hours. Detectives yelled at her, berated her for being a negligent mother and suggested that if Mariah’s death was not her fault, it must be one of her children, according to the petition.

At one point, a ranger came within inches of Lucio’s face and said there was evidence that didn’t look good, the petition states. He then told Lucio that he would “help” her if she told him what he already knew.

Detectives also handed Lucio a doll and asked him to demonstrate what happened, according to the petition. They implied that if she didn’t confess, she wouldn’t be allowed to attend Mariah’s funeral.

Lucio has asserted his innocence more than 100 times – verbally saying 86 times that she did not kill Mariah and shaking his head no more than 35 other times, according to the petition.

As the questioning dragged on, Lucio told detectives that she had hit Mariah in the past, but did not say she had killed the little girl. “What am I going to say? I’m responsible for it,” she said, according to the petition. During his trial, these statements were presented to the jury as his confession.

Lucio said his daughter – who suffered from a condition that caused her foot to retract – fell down an outside staircase as the family prepared to move into a new apartment. Mariah was crying but didn’t appear to have any serious injuries, Lucio said. She died two days later.

Prosecutors, however, painted a different picture. Court documents show prosecutors claimed during Lucio’s trial that she repeatedly abused Mariah and killed her by punching her in the head.

The district attorney’s office said in a statement to the Brownsville Herald that Mariah had been “severely beaten”, had “bruises in various healing states covering her body” and had parts of her hair missing. Lucio’s lawyers deny these claims and say the bruises are the result of the fall.

‘His autopsy revealed bruised kidneys, a bruised spinal cord and bruised lungs,’ the prosecutor said, adding that an ER doctor said it was the ‘absolute worst’ case of child abuse. .

Victims of abuse are more likely to make false confessions

Lucio, born in Lubbock, Texas, endured years of abuse and violence, according to her attorneys. At age 6, she was sexually abused by one of her mother’s partners, her legal team said in the clemency application.

She allegedly suffered abuse from multiple partners that continued through her teenage years and into adulthood.

As a result, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociation, according to her legal team. Lucio also has a below average IQ. Experts have said these conditions are all risk factors that make a person more likely to falsely confess.

“People usually falsely confess to walking out of the interrogation room,” Guarnera said. “Interrogation is also a very cognitively demanding task, so you have to listen, you have to analyze the truth and falsity of the information, you have to think about your options and future consequences.”

Trauma victims who dissociate may not fully grasp the gravity of the situation they find themselves in, so “they won’t be able to follow and pay attention as carefully and this may make you potentially inclined to accept suggestions from officers. “Guarnera said.

“You can see it in Melissa Lucio’s case. She kind of regurgitates it, she says the same thing they said to her because it’s the easiest solution,” she explained.

Mechanic agreed, describing dissociation as a coping mechanism.

“She’s a woman who’s used to being threatened, yelled at,” she said. “If those threats in interrogation are a trigger and she checks out, it can again be easy for her to say anything because she’s trying to deal with what feels like a current threat.”

Shanda Crain, who was convicted of the 1995 murder of her parents in Washington Parish, Louisiana, said in an academic paper that she found 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 as she was yelled at by a detective. She said she believed she made the false confession in part because of a learned fear of violence.

Attempts to reach Crain were unsuccessful.

Trauma-Informed Interview

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, a Virginia-based association for police chiefs, has a guide on best practices law enforcement should follow for successful trauma-informed interviews. Advice includes making the victim feel safe, having a lawyer in the room, expressing compassion, and not interrupting the victim.

The Office of Justice Programs, an agency of the United States Department of Justice that focuses on crime prevention through research and development, said in a published report on interviews with victims of domestic violence that detectives should ” give credibility to the victim without expecting a high level of cooperation”. .”

Guarnera said that’s great advice to follow, but pointed out that detectives often do the opposite when they think someone is a suspect and not a victim.

“I think there’s this thought or belief that if we abandon the adversarial, presumptive guilt, coercive style of American interrogation, it will have bad consequences and we won’t be able to convict people,” she said. declared.

Guarnera said she believes a practice used by police in Europe, called the Peace Model, will help people in situations similar to Lucio’s.

The model was developed with the help of psychologists and takes a non-confrontational approach to questioning. By law, detectives are also not allowed to lie to suspects. Andy Griffiths, a former senior British police investigator, wrote in a 2012 article that the Peace model trains officers to focus on “investigating a suspect’s account” instead of trying to force confession.

“There are already police departments around the world that have this model of investigation and fact-finding,” Guarnera said. “You don’t make this firm division between a victim and a suspect…because often you don’t know in the beginning who is a victim and who is a suspect.”

As Lucio’s case hangs in the balance, a group of bipartisan Texas lawmakers led by Republican Rep. Jeff Leach are pleading with Governor Greg Abbott and other elected officials to stop his execution. On Wednesday, they visited Lucio at Mountain View Unit in Gatesville.

“We promised #MelissaLucio and his family, we will do everything we can to prevent this irreversible injustice from happening later this month,” Leach wrote Thursday on Twitter. “And we intend to keep that promise.”

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