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Texas death row prisoner Melissa Lucio granted stay of execution

Mexican American woman, 52, who was due to be put to death on Wednesday, wins time for court to consider new evidence

The Texas court of criminal appeals has issued a stay of execution for Melissa Lucio, the Mexican-American woman who was set to be judicially killed within 48 hours, ordering a lower court to consider new evidence of her innocence in the death of her two-year-old daughter Mariah.

The court issued its order on Monday as the final clock was ticking on Lucio’s transfer to the death chamber. She would have been the first Hispanic woman executed by Texas.

As Wednesday’s scheduled execution date grew closer, calls for a stay to give time for new scientific evidence of her innocence to be reviewed grew to fever pitch. The intensity of the outcry against her pending death rivaled that of the case of Troy Davis, the African American man executed by Georgia in 2011 despite serious doubts around his guilt.

New evidence presented by Lucio’s legal team in a 266-page petition suggested that the murder of her toddler daughter had never even happened. Medical and eye-witness evidence pointed towards Mariah having died after accidentally falling down a steep flight of stairs at Lucio’s rental home.

In a statement, Lucio thanked the court of criminal appeals for giving her the chance “to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in my heart today and always.”

Sandra Babcock, one of Lucio’s legal team and a professor at Cornell law school, said that the court’s decision paved the way for a new trial which would allow a jury to hear evidence that was not presented at her original trial in 2008. Five of the 12 jury members from that trial have said that had they known what is now known about the case they would have decided differently.

Babcock said: “Melissa’s life matters. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, and now locked away for these past 15 years, Melissa’s voice and experiences have never been valued. The Court’s decision signals its willingness to finally hear Melissa’s side of the story.”

Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, who also represents Lucio, said: “Medical evidence shows that Mariah’s death was consistent with an accident. But for the State’s use of false testimony, no juror would have voted to convict Melissa of capital murder because no murder occurred.”

Jeff Leach, the Republican lawmaker who led the push in the Texas House for a delay of execution, greeted the news of the stay with delight, saying it would secure “justice for Melissa and for Mariah and the entire Lucio family”.Advertisement

Earlier, Leach told the Guardian in an interview that the failings of the prosecution in Lucio’s case had shaken his belief in the death penalty. He said her treatment had “given me great pause and made me reconsider my stance on whether this is the way we want to do things in the state of Texas”.

Leach has been at the forefront of efforts by Texas lawmakers to persuade the authorities to postpone the execution. He orchestrated a letter to the board of pardons signed by 80 House members, 32 of whom are Republican. A similar letter has been sent by 20 Texas senators, eight Republican.

In the House letter, the lawmakers pointed out that Lucio was treated by prosecutors in a completely different way to her husband, who was also responsible for Mariah’s care. Lucio had no previous history of violence and her children said she had never been abusive towards them; by contrast her husband had a history of assault yet is now a free man having only served a four-year sentence for child endangerment.

The extent of bipartisan agreement, with more than half the legislature backing calls for a stay, is extremely rare in such a riven state.

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