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Lawyers for Texas death row prisoner say judge, DA have conflict of interest

Lawyers for Texas death row prisoner say judge, DA have conflict of interest
Melissa Lucio was sentenced to death for the 2007 death of her 2-year-old daughter. File Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Attorneys for a woman on death row in Texas filed motions Friday seeking to have the judge and district attorney removed from her case, citing conflict of interest.

The court documents said members of Melissa Lucio's defense team in her 2008 murder trial now work for Judge Gabriela Garcia for the 138th District and Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz.

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Former defense attorney Peter Gilman now serves as assistant district attorney. Irma Gilman, who previously worked as a paralegal for her husband, Peter Gilman, now works as Garcia's court administrator.

Lucio, 53, is scheduled to be executed April 27 for the 2007 death of her daughter Mariah. Police said Lucio confessed to beating her daughter to death, but her lawyers said witnesses and evidence showed the girl accidentally fell down a flight of stairs.

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Lucio's current attorneys said Peter Gilman and Irma Gilman owe their client "a continuing duty" to cooperate with them on her current appeals. Lucio is seeking to have her execution date withdrawn citing a wrongful conviction.

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Attorney Tivon Schardl said Garcia and Saenz, therefore, are automatically disqualified from Lucio's case under Texas law.

"Judge Garcia's and D.A. Saenz's roles in this case have the effect of obstructing Melissa Lucio's access to evidence," Schardl said. "As Ms. Lucio's defense team at trial, Peter Gilman and Irma Gilman have a duty to cooperate with Ms. Lucio's current counsel. But as long as D.A. Saenz is on the case, Peter Gilman's conflict of interest prevents him from cooperating with Ms. Lucio's current attorneys. And as long as Judge Garcia is on the case, Irma Gilman can't cooperate with Ms. Lucio's counsel because it would be a prohibited ex parte communication."

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Lucio's lawyers said she's innocent of her daughter's death and that Mariah fell down a flight of outdoor stairs while the family was moving to a new apartment.

Court documents indicated girl was known to have a "mild physical disability" that made her unsteady while walking and had had fallen before. They said the child appeared uninjured after the fall, but she didn't wake up from a nap two days later.

In a filing earlier this month, her attorneys accused police of discounting "medical and scientific evidence" indicating Mariah's death was accidental. Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, said police pressured Lucio to confess during an interrogation within hours of the death of her daughter.

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Lawyers said Lucio repeatedly told police she didn't kill her daughter, but officers yelled at and berated her. They said she was vulnerable to what they described as a coercive interrogation technique after years of abuse and trauma.

"While pregnant with twins, Melissa was subjected to a 5-hour, late-night and aggressive interrogation until, physically and emotionally exhausted, she agreed to say, 'I guess I did it.' Melissa suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse -- starting when she was only 6 years old -- and domestic violence, which made her especially vulnerable to the police's coercive interrogation tactics," Potkin said.

Lucio's lawyers also took issue with the trial judge's decision not to allow defense attorneys to present expert witnesses who could have testified about how her past trauma may have influenced her confession.

A federal appeals court later said such evidence would've been important in her initial trial, during which prosecutors didn't provide any physical evidence or witness testimony to suggest Lucio ever abused Mariah or any of her other 11 children.

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