On his latest show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver discussed the problem of false confessions and the infamous ‘Reid technique’ that police use in order to extract confessions out of people, even if they are innocent. Police interrogators and prosecutors love confessions because it makes their lives so much easier. It saves them the tedious work of investigating crimes, collecting evidence, and building a case against a suspect. Furthermore, juries seem to think that confessions are powerful, almost watertight, indicators of guilt.
Given the determination of police and prosecutors to quickly close cases, and their seeming lack of interest in obtaining actual justice, one should not be surprised that they put so much effort into obtaining confessions from people even if there are indicators that they might be innocent. Among the many cases, he mentioned that of Melissa Lucio who in 2007 ‘confessed’ to killing her two-year old child and is now scheduled to be executed on Wednesday, despite the very real possibility that she is innocent and that interrogators coerced her to confess.
On the evening of 15 February 2007, a team of five police officers in Cameron county, Texas, began an interrogation of a Mexican American mother whom they suspected of having murdered her two-year-old child.
Melissa Lucio was in a vulnerable condition. She was pregnant with twins and in the grip of shock and grief. Just two hours earlier her youngest child Mariah had been pronounced dead having fallen unconscious.
The officers did not let the suspect’s vulnerabilities get in the way of the inquisition. Over almost six hours, stretching late into the night, they applied to Lucio the notorious “Reid Technique” – a controversial interrogation method that has led to numerous wrongful convictions in the US.
As trained to do under the system, the officers put their faces within inches of Lucio’s, screaming at her that she “had to know” what had happened to her child. They had “lots of evidence” that she was to blame for the death, they said, forcing her to view photographs of the girl’s lifeless body.
Then, as the Reid method dictates, they abruptly switched tone. They gently reassured her that she could “put this to rest” if she would only confess to having caused the toddler’s death.
Lucio insisted over 100 times that night that she was innocent. But after more than five hours of aggressive “maximization” and “minimization”, as the technique is known, she reached break point.
She began to repeat the phrases that the investigators had effectively coached her to say.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” she told them. “I’m responsible for it … I guess I did it.”
That coerced confession was the core evidence presented at Lucio’s subsequent trial. It was critical to the jury’s guilty verdict, and to the death sentence that followed.
The article goes on to describe the many failures of the investigation. It seemed like the first responders immediately decided that she was guilty and then proceeded to break her down, ignoring all the counter-indicators.
The many legal missteps that lie behind Lucio’s death sentence are laid out in a 266-page petition released this week that calls for a postponement of the execution and a new trial. The prisoner’s lawyers begin by exploring the wealth of evidence that Mariah died by mishap rather than in a brutal murder.
As Lucio was being interrogated by Cameron county detectives, in a separate room in the police station some of her other children (she had nine at that time) were also being questioned. They told investigators that their mother had never been abusive or violent in any way.
Dr Janice Ophoven, the pediatric forensic pathologist who reviewed the Lucio materials, concluded: “The investigation into Mariah’s death appears to have been significantly prejudiced … and creates a risk of [a] serious miscarriage of justice in this case.”
One glimmer of hope is that this is such a bad situation that even some state Republican lawmakers are joining in efforts to stay the execution.
Among those calling for a stay of execution are a bipartisan group of 103 members of the Texas legislature – including 32 Republican members of the House and eight Republican state senators. That is an extraordinary display of cross-party unity for such a toxically divided assembly.
Hundreds of religious bodies, along with women’s and domestic violence advocacy groups, have joined celebrities such as Kim Kardashian to plead with the Republican governor Greg Abbott and the state’s board of pardons to intervene. A documentary about the case, The State of Texas v Melissa, was released in 2020.
Five of the jurors who convicted Lucio have also called for a reprieve. They argue that if they had known at the time what has since emerged the outcome would have been different.
Oliver discussed the Lucio case in more detail in an earlier segment on wrongful convictions.
The bad news is that this is Texas, and the Republican governor Greg Abbott who has the power to stay the execution is an awful person.
Even if Lucio’s life is spared and she is later found innocent, the people who put her in this terrible situation will not pay any price for their actions.
Marcus Ranum says
Proponents of the death “penalty” insist that no innocent person has ever been executed. Or, they used to. I think they’ve stopped by now, given that there are actually a pretty substantial number of documented incidents in which innocent people were murdered by the state under cover of law. What they mean is that no white people have been wrongly executed, which is also pretty wrong.
Someone ought to sue the US department of justice for violating truth in advertising laws. No, sorry, you’ve got nothing to do with “justice” get that word out of your mouth or I’ll slap it out. Too soon?
This particular situation is more nuanced; while I believe Lucio was coerced into saying what they wanted to hear, the baby had broken bones, hair pulled out, bruises in various signs of healing, and other injuries consistent with prolonged abuse. So she was being brutalized in the home (by whom?) and her death may have been at the hands of *someone* in that home if not Lucio herself.
I believe that now the death sentence has been stopped, at least the morning reports seem to say so.