Regardless of sex, race, or creed, there are laws and rights afforded every American who’s ever been accused of a crime. We have the right to an attorney, a fair trial, and suitable punishment. And we trust that each of these small dignities in our time of need would be carried out by competent, caring people who’ve placed value on facts above their own selfish agendas. But in the case of Melissa Lucio, she was dealt an egregious miscarriage of justice, being denied an impartial trial and sharp legal counsel that might’ve saved her from death row. Director Sabrina Van Tassel’s “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” takes a direct, hard look at the broken criminal justice system to shed light on a pervasive problem and, in turn, help a desperate woman have her appeal heard.
Van Tassel opens the gripping documentary on Lucio’s police interrogation video, which serves as a microcosm of the heartbreaking indignities that follow. In a matter of seconds, we see this is a woman with barely any energy to spare after a tragedy has struck, trapping her in a self-preserving state of shock as she’s coerced into incrimination. With no legal representation accompanying her in the claustrophobic office, answering questions into the wee hours of the morning about her recently-deceased 2 1/2-year-old daughter Mariah, Lucio is caught in an inescapable scenario – overwhelmed first by grief, and secondly by the law. Her young progeny died under suspicious circumstances after a fall down the family’s apartment stairs. Because the numerous signs of trauma on the toddler’s body point to a pattern of physical abuse, Lucio is made the prime suspect in her murder.
Soon thereafter, we get to know the woman in that video. It’s the kind of respectful, humane treatment Lucio was never given as a marginalized woman of color. Despite her battle against buried demons and her struggles with abject poverty and drug addiction, she rose above her tribulations to, by all accounts, be a good, present mother to her 14 children. As she recalls a past night’s dream behind the Plexiglas separator of the jailhouse visitor’s room, she deeply misses the mundanity of motherhood – a fantasy alternative timeline where she’d be home helping a teenage Mariah apply lipstick and nail polish. For now, she’s confined to a tiny jail cell, imprisoned by regret and sorrow.
Lucio’s case was a landmark one for the state of Texas, not solely because of the salacious headlines it created (the media branded her a “Homicidal Mom”), but because she’s the first Hispanic woman on death row. It’s the kind of pioneering feminist acclaim no one craves. Her appellate lawyer seemingly infers that her death sentence had more to do with behind-the-scenes politicking and the commendations a guilty verdict would bring to the self-righteous folk seeking to make history rather than proving her innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. The film outlines the calculated strategies of Lucio’s assigned defense lawyer and the greedy motives of the prosecution, both of whom benefited greatly from her guilty verdict. Each riveting revelation is backed up by paperwork meticulously pored over by her appellate lawyer.
One of the more indelible, unforgettable moments involves the allegation pointing to the possible perpetrator of Mariah’s perpetual physical abuse. The refined manner in which Van Tassel, director of photographer Cyril Thomas and editor Damien Bois construct that particular interview sears itself on the viewer’s soul, quietly highlighting the stakes without an ounce of manipulation. They don’t have to rely on any flashy aesthetics. It’s their knack for finding details in simplicity, utilizing soft, effused light on the harsh realities, lingering camera work, and perfectly timed cuts on the cutting accusations.
Van Tassel approaches this social-justice-infused human interest story with empathy and compassion, asking the necessary questions of her interviewees and capturing their responses with a soft, inconspicuous touch. She brings the same intellect and introspection demonstrated in her previous documentary, “The Silenced Walls” (about France’s heartrending history with the Holocaust). From the segments that feature Lucio’s family members speaking kindly to her character, to Lucio’s original defense lawyer, who doesn’t pull any punches defending himself from scrutiny, the documentarian craftily and cleverly shines a light on the hidden recesses of the odds stacked against her subject in order to form an indictment of the system at large.
It’s important to note that the film’s journalistic-minded aim isn’t exclusively on exonerating Lucio. Van Tassel, a former journalist herself, makes it clear through narrative structure and subtle subtext that her documentary isn’t trying to judge guilt or innocence – although some of the facts she uncovers lead to some pretty large shadows of doubt. Instead, she narrows her focus on exposing the weak links – and there is a litany of them – in the judicial chain that landed Lucio in an unwinnable circumstance. This plays like a horror movie for anyone who isn’t a white, wealthy man.
“The State of Texas vs. Melissa” played the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s currently seeking U.S. distribution.