The State of Texas vs. Melissa
Death row is home to the prisoners awaiting execution for committing the worst crimes known to man. In 2007, Melissa Lucio was convicted of killing her two-year-old daughter and was sentenced to death. As its title indicates, The State of Texas vs. Melissa clumsily traces a David and Goliath story in an attempt to find the truth in the life of this mother of 14.
The film opens with poignant footage of Lucio being asked to demonstrate by prosecutors how she used to pat a choking child on the back. Her powerful hand comes down with so much force that she begins to cry, fully realising the unfortunate fate awaiting her. After a strong opening, the film sags into lengthy testimonials from friends of the family, attesting to her gentle character. The viewer is offered a complex portrait of a woman struggling to raise a large family in poverty. Her children, now grown, recount how she would lock herself in the bathroom to get high and how they knew to leave her alone in these moments.
These defence statements are balanced with statements from the pathologist who examined the body of her deceased daughter, calling it “the worst case of child abuse [he] had ever seen”. Writer-director Sabrina Van Tassel throws in some scant excerpts to cast doubt on the prosecution. The lawyer who pushed to have the defendant sentenced to death was later exposed for bribery – this detail is squeezed in before the credits roll.
The most interesting insight comes from Melissa’s mother, who leaned toward believing her daughter was capable of such violence. However, this is quickly passed over in favour of more positive testimonials from siblings and children.
Visually, the morbid, washed-out grading and boiler-plate interviews anchor the documentary in the aesthetic of low-budget true crime TV. The State of Texas vs. Melissa is a tale of injustice and a compelling character study. Unfortunately, Van Tassel skims over the surface, never really brave enough to venture deeper to where the difficult questions lie.
The State of Texas vs. Melissa does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Tribeca Film Festival 2020 coverage here.