My third film at Raindance is a heartbreaking documentary by Sabrina Van Tassel. The films follows the case of Melissa Lucio, the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death in Texas for the abuse and death of her toddler, Mariah. The interviews with Lucio take place 11 years into her life on death row as she is approaching her final appeal. A mother of 14 children, Lucio expresses her regret at the situation and states that she often thinks about Mariah while also insisting her innocence. The tone of the film from the outset is one of great sadness as Melissa and the interviewees are forced to recount their memories of the case. With the forensic team claiming the results were the worst cases of child abuse they had witnessed, the appeal defence team argues that it is possible that Melissa wasn’t responsible for the death and that she was coerced into confessing due to the corrupt justice system.
What the documentary does is study both the prosecution and defence into the case through interviews with the forensic team, family members and lawyers amongst others. Chronicling Melissa’s life from her troubled past being abused as a child to a drug riddled adult life in poverty and the tragic results that followed. Losing her children due to neglect, Melissa’s life continues to delve deeper downwards. The interviews with her children who were sent to foster care are devastating as they all believe in her innocence and claim that the investigation and trial weren’t carried out properly. Van Tassel seeks to expose the defence that was left out of the investigation, showcasing the different angles and sides to the case and painting a picture that wasn’t taken into account. The footage of police using various tactics to get Melissa to confess is particularly difficult as it shows the mental anguish and breakdown until she eventually does admit to beating her. Having spent hours without water food or a bathroom break, she is manipulated by the police force. Recollecting the experience, Melissa explains this breakdown giving a commentary on the footage.
Her trial also showcased many injustices such as evidence that was set aside and politicians using the case to assist with his electoral campaign. Lucio’s 9 year old son saw Mariah fall down a large flight of stairs as confirmed in a video interview but he was not brought to speak at the trial. Van Tassel incorporates home footage as well as footage taken from outside the house showing their now derelict home. Outside the home is a long broken flight of stairs were Mariah fell and Van Tassel constantly revisits that shot so it doesn’t leave the audience’s mind throughout. It is clear that Lucio was being used a political pawn in the duration of her trial. Her lawyer doesn’t allow the children to testify due to the potential that they could be manipulated but this is clearly a misjudged step as some of her children witnessed the incident. There was no attempt to contact her family or friends to testify which makes you question the motives of the defence team. Whether or not Lucio is guilty cannot be known from the trial alone as she was not given the fair trial she was entitled to.
Overall, The State of Texas vs Melissa is a powerful and harrowing documentary that shows the tragic consequences that rippled from a devastating childhood. It will linger with you long after the credits roll. What Van Tassel does is investigate what could have happened and exploit the misjustices that occur against minorities in the justice system. Even though the trial took place over a decade ago, it is clear that these issues are still relevant today. Van Tassel helps to shine a light on this topic.
The State of Texas vs Melissa is showing at Raindance Film Festival.