'The State of Texas vs. Melissa': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

THE STATE OF TEXAS VS. MELISSA - Publicity still - H 2020
Courtesy of Film
A muddled look at injustice.

Sabrina Van Tassel introduces a Texas woman who was sentenced to death for the murder of her daughter.

[Note: In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to screen digitally for critics.]

An uncompelling spinoff of the director's 2017 film about women sentenced to death row, Sabrina Van Tassel's The State of Texas vs. Melissa interviews the family and supporters of Melissa Lucio, a woman convicted of killing her 2-year-old daughter in 2007. Hazy on the storytelling front even before it simply drops the tale and summarizes several dramatic developments in awkwardly written title cards, the doc offers ample reason to suspect Lucio didn't do what she was convicted of. Though any effort to draw attention to a wrongful death sentence deserves some kind of support, this one seems unlikely to have any effect on its subject's case one way or the other.

Lucio would seem to many outsiders like exactly the kind of woman who might snap under pressure and do something terrible. Despite being so poor she can barely care for herself, she had 14 children, five of them by the time she was 24. She had a drug habit that consumed an hour or two a day, and had at some point (Van Tassel gives few details) had her children removed for neglect. When Mariah's body was found dead, covered with terrible bruises — "the worst case of child abuse I had ever seen," says the pathologist who examined her — it didn't take much to convince local prosecutors she was guilty.

The film knows of some reasons to doubt the prosecution's case, but it is in no rush to share them. For the first half-hour, it relies solely on the fact that people who knew her didn't think she was violent. Child Protective Services and an investigating psychologist didn't see her in those terms, and Lucio's siblings predictably defend her. But what should we make of the fact that Lucio's own mother was willing to believe she did it?

Toward its midpoint, the doc (often vaguely) presents another possibility: That Mariah, who was disfigured and fell down frequently, was pushed down a flight of stairs by a sister who disliked her. Eventually, interviewees suggest that Melissa allowed herself to be prosecuted to protect her child. The film then offers ingredients that we'll sadly recognize from other tales of the justice system: a long, aggressive interrogation conducive to eliciting false confessions; a defense attorney who put no supporting witnesses on the stand and seemed uninterested in evidence suggesting Lucio's innocence.

But the doc pads out its assertions of malfeasance with personal scenes that fall flat, never giving much insight into its subject's personality or deepening the sympathy we may have started off with for the children she left behind. The revelation that the district attorney who pushed for her execution was later imprisoned for bribery is squeezed in just before the credits roll — at which point we learn, in titles, that last July an appeals court overturned her conviction. Lucio is still in prison while the state appeals that decision. After having claimed that the courts didn't care about pursuing justice and observed that family members more or less abandoned her in prison, it's hard for the film to end in such an abrupt way without itself seeming half-hearted.

Production company: Vito Films
Director-screenwriter: Sabrina Van Tassel
Producer: Isaac Sharry
Executive producers: Sabrina Van Tassel, Philippe de Bourbon
Director of photography: Cyril Thomas
Editor: Damien Bois
Composer: Christophe La Pinta
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)

98 minutes