By Helen Cook
Gatesville, Texas, Apr 29 (EFE).- A French-American journalist and filmmaker whose 2020 documentary sparked widespread interest in the case of 52-year-old American death row inmate Melissa Lucio is now being seen as the driving force behind her being granted a stay of execution earlier this week.
“Angel” has been the word used by Lucio and her mother and sister to describe Sabrina Van Tassel, who spoke to Efe as part of a flurry of press appearances since a Monday ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which stayed the execution that had been scheduled for Wednesday.
Hearing that moniker “touches me,” Van Tassel said. “I remember that (the Lucio family) were all alone” back in 2017, when the filmmaker became acquainted with that Hispanic woman’s case and her 2008 capital murder conviction following the death the year before of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah.
Van Tassel was working on a documentary about women on death row when she met Lucio, who was one of the few inmates to agree to be interviewed.
The filmmaker then began investigating the story she heard from Lucio, who said her daughter’s fatal injuries had been caused by a fall down a steep set of stairs.
She traveled to the southeastern Texas border town of Harlingen and spoke with members of Lucio’s family, who told her that the trial was fraught with irregularities and that defense attorney Peter Gilman scarcely presented any evidence that might have exonerated her.
“My instincts told me there’s something really wrong, wrong, wrong with this case. I just cannot believe that she did this,” Van Tassel said. “And if she did, I want to know what happened. I want to understand how someone whose family and the children basically say that she was non-violent … went from being non-violent to being on death row.”
Van Tassel decided to devote an entire documentary to Lucio’s case – a film titled “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” that was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2020 and won the Best Documentary Feature prize at the Raindance Film Festival.
“I’ve never been so involved in a case in my life,” said Van Tassel, who has worked for the past three years to save Lucio’s life and potentially secure her eventual exoneration and release.
Van Tassel was joined in her efforts to halt the execution by numerous Texas state lawmakers and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Susan Sarandon.
The filmmaker said she was particularly confounded by the fact that a person could be convicted and sentenced to death “with a case so weak.”
“And the difference between the rich and the poor, and how they get treated by the justice system, that horrified me,” she added. “I realized first-hand that it’s a catastrophe and that the justice system is not only broken; it was designed to put people like Melissa Lucio on death row.”
Van Tassel said her advocacy on the part of Lucio has led to the two of them becoming friends and that in fact she had been on a list of people close to the death-row inmate who were to have witnessed Wednesday’s execution.
That was avoided due to Monday’s appeals court ruling, which said the merit of several claims by Lucio’s attorneys – that the availability of new scientific evidence might lead to an acquittal in a potential retrial and that prosecutors had used false testimony and suppressed evidence to convict her – must now be considered by the trial court.
While that process unfolds, Lucio will remain on death row.
Van Tassel now is planning to film a second part of the documentary, a new movie whose focus will shift from the condemned woman to the devastating, decades-long impact a death sentence can have on a family.
But the filmmaker also told Efe she would like that new installment to conclude with a scene featuring Lucio.
“She’s coming out (of prison), and we’re having a nice glass of wine – me and her – someplace. Wouldn’t that be nice?” EFE