The State of Texas vs.Melissa is released this September 15. It highlights the flaws in the American legal system through the story of Melissa Lucio, a poor mother, sentenced to death after the death of her two-year-old daughter and an expeditious trial.
For thirteen years, Melissa Lucio is on death row in Texas, after being accused of killing her two-year-old daughter. A sordid and banal story of child abuse that did not interest the media, until the Franco-American director Sabrina Van Tassel looked into the subject.
“I was offered to do a TV report on women on death row. Texas allows journalists to interview these people. So I contacted the six women involved. Melissa Lucio agreed to meet with me.
I became interested in her case, and was amazed that no one was talking about her except for two poor articles in the local press. I contacted his family first and they told me that Iwas the first journalist to go see them. It immediately struck me.
They told me about the possibility of an accident, the Attorney General who had obtained Melissa’s conviction and who was now in prison for corruption, and the ex-officio lawyer who had gone to work for the prosecutor’s office after the trial. »
Sabrina Van Tassel, journalist and director
The State of Texas against Melissa: a botched trial and a lot of gray areas
After her first interview with Melissa, Sabrina Van Tassel is convinced: there is something wrong with this story and Melissa’s trial has too many gray areas. She then decides to investigate this matter and make a documentary for the cinema, which Madmoizelle is accompanying the release in France on September 15.
The journalist reads the 8,000 pages of the file, meets the successive lawyers of Melissa, her children, her family, her neighbors, but also experts and forensic pathologists, to try to understand what really happened at Melissa Lucio in February 2007 .
What she discovers is a botched trial that lasted four days, with a court-appointed lawyer who clearly didn’t do his job (and got a promotion to join the DA’s office right after) and very little evidence of Melissa’s guilt.
The whole accusation is based on the photos of the body of the little girl covered in bruises and the “confessions” extracted from Melissa after a night of interrogation, without her having been able to eat, drink or sleep. However, no one has ever seen Melissa abuse her children, even though it has been followed by social services for several years, due to the precariousness in which the family lives.
And then, Melissa is, in the eyes of American society, a “Ideal culprit”.
“Melissa represents a lot of things that America hates: she is Latina, not very beautiful, she has ‘too many’ children, lives on welfare, does drugs… Somehow, she was already judged on all this. For American society, she was already guilty, she is nobody, so she can disappear. “
A breathtaking documentary that never leans into sensationalism
The journalist’s detailed investigation gradually draws another possible scenario for the death of the little girl, and reveals corruption and loopholes in the US justice system, without ever slipping into sensationalism.
Served by a great sense of storytelling, this documentary without a voiceover, and which gives voice to all the protagonists of the case, is both breathless and moving. It tells in hollow the suffering which crosses all the family of Melissa, since well before the tragedy, as well as the discriminations and the violence lived by the mother of family and so many other women. Melissa was indeed raped by her stepfather during her childhood and adolescence, and she also suffered violence committed by her spouses.
“A lot of things caught my eye in this story as a woman, especially Melissa’s past of sexual violence. In making this documentary, I wanted go into the psychology of this woman and all these people who find themselves wrongly accused. In the United States, when you’re poor and part of a minority, you grow up feeling like you’re nothing and nobody. “
Sabrina Van Tassel
After the documentary aired in 2020 on the Hulu platform in the United States and at several festivals, there was a lot of interest around Melissa’s case, but from a judicial point of view, nothing has changed or almost.
Melissa Lucio is still on death row. She has exhausted all her appeal procedures, and she has only one hope left: that the Supreme Court will agree to take up the case. The decision is expected this fall, and if she refuses, Melissa will have a scheduled execution date.
“There is little doubt that if Melissa had been defended the way she should have been, she wouldn’t be on death row.” She might be in jail. Maybe not… “
Sabrina Van Tassel
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