AUSTIN, Texas — There aren't many celebrations on Texas death row, but it happened Monday when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of Melissa Lucio following a Hail Mary hearing in Austin.
The court also opened up the possibility of a new trial amid growing doubts about whether Lucio killed her 2-year-old daughter Mariah in 2007.
In a phone call with Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican who has advocated on Lucio's behalf, she was overcome with emotion when he told her she'd just been granted a stay, the Texas Tribune reported.
"Are you serious?" she asked, laughing through tears. "That is wonderful ... oh, thank you, God."
RELATED: More coverage of Melissa Lucio case
Later in a news conference with her son and many supporters, Lucio spoke briefly as her son Bobby held the phone.
"I just wanted to say thank you to everybody who has supported me and given me love," Melissa said.
The South Texas mother of 14 -- including twins she had to give up for adoption after giving birth in a prison hospital -- also released a statement through her lawyers.
Lucio said she is "grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in my heart today and always. I am grateful to have more days to be a mother to my children and a grandmother to my grandchildren. I will use my time to help bring them to Christ. I am deeply grateful to everyone who prayed for me and spoke out on my behalf."
Lucio family travels to Gatesville to celebrate with Melissa
Lucio's children, mother and other family members made the eight-hour trip from Harlingen to the Gatesville prison many times in recent weeks, but Monday's journey was very different.
Laughter and tears of happiness replaced the feeling of dread from past trips.
Oldest son John Lucio, surrounded by supporters, thanked the attorneys, the Innocence Project and everyone else who joined the fight to save his mother.
"I find it really, really amazing. I mean, we are all believers in God and we believe that God put these people in our lives," John said. "My mother is a big believer in God. Her prayers have been persistent, like that widow in the Bible, and her prayers have been answered."
WATCH: John Lucio speaks at news conference after visiting mom in prison
Lucio also thanked supporters in The Valley, in Texas and "across the globe."
"We're just one big ol' team, you know, putting up the fight for my mother."
It was younger son Bobby Lucio who called the other siblings with the news.
"It was kinda hard for them to listen or hear me because I was crying, it was hard to get out," Bobby told reporters.
News spread quickly
On Monday morning, supporters carrying signs on Lucio's behalf were camped outside of Gov. Greg Abbott's office at the Texas Capitol when they got the news.
KHOU 11 News reporter Melissa Correa was there when they spoke with Lucio's son John and his wife Michelle, who were driving to death row to celebrate with Melissa.
"We are just overwhelmed with so much joy. We are just so grateful for everybody, every single body, that has done so much for her," Michelle said. "We are just in so much disbelief right now. We knew this was going to happen. This is what we were praying for."
What happens next in Melissa Lucio case?
The Texas appeals court said its decision was based on three counts raised by the South Texas woman's attorneys.
- Whether Lucio is actually innocent
- Whether the state presented false testimony at trial
- And whether the state hid evidence from the defense
A lower court will now review claims that new evidence in Lucio's case would exonerate her and they will determine whether she should get a new trial.
"Today's decision isn't just rare, it's an incredible victory for the Lucio family," KHOU 11 legal analyst Carmen Roe said. "This isn't just stopping an execution or buying more time, it's actually granting her a hearing in the trial court to determine whether she's actually innocent.
"The state also went one step further to say that the state withholding evidence in this case, as well as new scientific evidence, may be sufficient to prove that she is actually innocent, which is incredible in a case where we have an execution date set," Roe explained.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was expected to deliver its own recommendations Monday but issued a brief statement saying that won't happen.
"Based on a stay of execution issued by the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas on April 25, 2022, the Board of Pardons and Paroles will not be making a clemency recommendation at this time," the board posted on its website.
Abbott was awaiting the recommendation so no action is expected from him, either.
If the courts eventually decide that Lucio is innocent, she would be released from prison.
Why is Melissa Lucio on Texas death row?
Lucio was sent to death row for the 2007 death of her youngest daughter Mariah in Harlingen, a city of about 75,000 in the southern tip of Texas. Five of the jurors who convicted her in 2008 have joined calls to stop the execution.
Coverage of her case has sparked an international outcry from politicians, religious leaders, celebrities and death penalty opponents.
A weekend of prayer vigils and rallies in more than a dozen cities nationwide was held urging those in power to intervene.
Magdaleno Rose-Avila drove all the way to the Rio Grande Valley from Atlanta, Georgia, in support of Lucio.
"We’re on a countdown for Melissa Lucio’s case. I wanted to be here," Rose-Avila said. "People are saying, you know, there are so many errors with this case. That she should not only not have a death sentence, but she should have been freed immediately."
What happened to Mariah Alvarez?
It was a February day 15 years ago when the family of Mariah Alvarez called 911 after the toddler was found unresponsive at their South Texas apartment. At the time, Lucio and her husband had 12 children between the ages of 2 and 15.
Lucio and some of the children told police that Mariah had accidentally fallen down the stairs a couple of days earlier. Mariah’s death was later determined to be caused by a blunt-force injury to the head.
Lucio, the main suspect from the beginning, stood by her story during a lengthy, late-night interrogation the night of her daughter's death and into the next morning. Exhausted and pregnant with twins, Lucio broke down and admitted she had spanked, and possibly bitten, Mariah. Many believe that confession was coerced.
Lucio never admitted to killing her daughter or causing her head injury, but the other admissions led police and prosecutors to charge her with capital murder.
On July 10, 2008, a Cameron County jury convicted Lucio and sentenced her to death.
Armando Villalobos was the county's district attorney when Lucio was convicted. Lucio’s lawyers allege that he pushed for a conviction to help his reelection bid. In 2014, Villalobos was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison for a bribery scheme related to offering favorable prosecutorial decisions.
What the lawyers now say
Lucio's current lawyers say new evidence shows that Mariah’s injuries, including the blow to the head, were caused by a fall down a steep staircase, as Melissa and some of her children have claimed from the beginning.
Her lawyers also contend that unscientific and false evidence misled jurors into believing Mariah’s injuries only could have been caused by physical abuse and not by medical complications from a severe fall.
“I knew that what I was accused of doing was not true. My children have always been my world and although my choices in life were not good I would have never hurt any of my children in such a way,” Lucio wrote in a letter to Texas lawmakers.
Prosecutors said Lucio had a history of drug abuse and at times had lost custody of some of her 14 children after allegations of neglect.
Jurors have change of heart
Juror Johnny Galvan Jr. testified at a recent hearing to call for a new trial.
"I am now convinced that the jury got it wrong, and it's too much doubt to execute Ms. Lucio," Galvan said. "If I could take back my vote, I would. I would be haunted by Ms. Lucio's execution if it goes forward."
Galvan also said he felt pressured by other jurors to sentence Lucio.
Jury forewoman Melissa Quintanilla has also had a change of heart.
“The trial left me thinking Melissa Lucio was a monster, but now I see her as a human being who was made to seem evil because I didn’t have all the evidence I needed to make that decision,” Quintanilla said in an affidavit to the parole board. “Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and for a new jury to hear this evidence.
Supporters on both sides
Democrats and Republicans in the Texas Legislature don't agree on much these days, but lawmakers from both sides of the aisle believe Lucio's execution should be halted. In fact, there's a bipartisan effort to grant clemency.
Dozens of state lawmakers signed a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking it to act in Lucio's case. The letter cites significant doubts about "Ms. Lucio’s guilt, her disparate treatment compared to her husband and co-defendant, who received a four-year sentence, and the impact her execution will have on her supportive family and faith community."
National spotlight on Texas
Lucio's case has gotten attention from national news organizations and Hollywood.
Last month, HBO's "Last Week Tonight" mentioned Lucio's case in an episode on wrongful convictions. Last year, Hulu released “The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” raising questions about her guilt.
Lucio’s family and supporters have been traveling throughout Texas and holding rallies and screenings of a 2020 documentary about her case, “The State of Texas vs. Melissa.”
Kim Kardashian, who has a law degree and has helped other inmates, has also expressed support for Lucio. She's among the thousands of people who signed the petition urging Abbott to stop her execution.
"After she called for help, she was taken into custody by the police. Melissa is a survivor of abuse and domestic violence herself and after being interrogated for hours and falsely pleaded guilty. She wanted the interrogation to end, but police made her words out to be a confession," Kardashian wrote.
Women and capital punishment
Women being put to death is rare in the U.S., according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that opposes capital punishment. Women have accounted for only 3.6% of the more than 16,000 confirmed executions in the U.S. dating back to the colonial period in the 1600s, according to the group's data.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 17 women have been executed throughout the nation, according to the data. Texas has put more women to death — six — than any other state. Oklahoma is next, with three, and Florida has executed two.
The federal government has executed one woman since 1976. Lisa Montgomery, of Kansas, received a lethal injection in January 2021 after the Trump administration resumed executions in the federal system following a 17-year hiatus. The Justice Department has halted executions again under the Biden administration.
The Associated Press and Texas Tribune contributed to this report.