Although the Tribeca Film Festival has been indefinitely postponed, several films that were scheduled to screen at the event have been made available to critics for screening.
On the surface, the story of how Melissa Lucio became the first woman of Hispanic descent to be sentenced to death in Texas sounds horrific. Having lived all her life in poverty, she got married at sixteen just to escape her mother’s abusive boyfriend. Lucio had fourteen children and a drug habit with which she battled. And then, one day in 2007, paramedics were called to her home where they found Lucio’s two-year old daughter Mariah dead, covered in bruises and other signs of neglect. It seemed very much like an open and shut case, and Lucio soon found herself tried and sitting in a cell on Texas’s Death Row.
But that is just the surface, and in her documentary The State Of Texas Vs Melissa, director Sabrina Van Tassel digs into story and finds a more complex picture of what actually happened the day little Mariah lost her life and afterwards. Attempting to shed at least some reasonable doubt, Van Tassel argues that there were a number of missteps by both the prosecution and the defense that negatively impacted Lucio’s case.
To advance her premise, Lucio turns to a number of key interviews. Lucio’s eldest son Bobby states that neither the police or the District Attorney’s office interviewed any of the children who were present at the home the day Mariah died about what happened. Instead, the prosecution, in the form of District Attorney Armando Villalobos, relied on a confession that Lucio gave after a six to seven hour long, videotaped interrogation. Van Tassel presents a psychologist who casts doubt on the procedures used to obtain the confession. Lucio’s own court appointed defense at trial refused to call witnesses that could have potentially proven her innocent and actively suppressed testimony that one of her own children claimed responsibility for accidentally killing Mariah by shoving her down a flight of steps.
Of course, even after her conviction, there is still much that is shady surrounding the case. DA Villalobos was later convicted for corruption having been found guilty of both taking bribes and paying off judges. Although Lucio’s case was not part of the investigation against Villalobos, Van Tassel suggests that doesn’t preclude the possibility that he did not engage in such activities in relation to Lucio’s conviction. Luco’s original defense attorney, Peter Gilman, now works for the Texas district attorney’s office, and so now has a conflict of interest when it comes to investigating any improprieties of the defense counsel she received.
The case that Van Tassel makes in The State of Texas vs. Melissa is laid out in a concise, straightforward manner. She methodically goes through the facts that she feels supports her argument that Lucio should not be behind bars and does them in a concise logical way. Unfortunately, though, she does so in a way that is somewhat dry and at times I found myself struggling to fully engage with what she is presenting. Van Tassel parcels out information at such a slow pace that when it comes to some latter reveals – such as the revelation about Villalobos – that would help prove her thesis that Lucio could be a victim of a miscarriage of justice just feel rushed.
Of course, I am not arguing that the film needs to be sensationalistic to be compelling. I would equally reject such an exploitative approach to the material. But there is certainly that a middle ground between the two extremes that would have benefitted this story.