Raindance review: award-winning documentary The State Of Texas Vs Melissa

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Melissa Lucio stars in The State Of Texas Vs Melissa, a film that recently made its UK debut at the Raindance Film Festival – here’s our review.

The winner of the Best Documentary Feature category at Raindance was The State Of Texas Vs Melissa, a story unique in its telling but entirely frequent in its occurrence.

Melissa Lucio has been on Texas’ death row, the state responsible for the most executions in America since 1976, for twelve years. Opening with uncomfortable footage of a worn-down Lucio in an interrogation room, Sabrina Van Tassel (the film’s director) initially sets up a world in which Melissa is entirely guilty of her crime. A mother of 14 children who neglected and abused one so bad she died is the perfect story for a jury to grab hold of, but Van Tassel goes behind the scenes to get to the heart of a well-formed case of innocence.

This documentary feels narrative in its telling. There are all the archetypal characters; the innocent, the everyman, the ruler. All of whom live inside the small town of Harlingen, on the border of Texas and Mexico. There’s ominous graffiti that decorates walls: “Jesus Saves”, and yet 424 miles away in Gatesville, Melissa Lucio sits confined to the four walls of the Mountain View Unit, death row.

The State Of Texas Vs Melissa feels like extended reading for those who saw Just Mercy and Clemency last year and were, perhaps, challenged in their thoughts on capital punishment. It is so easy to say that horrific crimes warrant death, however, with such shocking rate of error (to the point that for every nine executions, one person has been found innocent) how can a system such as this continue to thrive? Van Tassel shares this view, “for this to exist the system has to be absolutely perfect,” which it has proven not to be. For her, creating this film was a way to bring light to the reality of those dealing with wrongful incarceration. It becomes a familial issue, not just one of the condemned.

The entire Lucio family has been dealing with the fallout, including her many children who were separated. “Let them get lost in the system,” is allegedly how Lucio’s attorney addressed the separation with the family after Melissa’s sentencing, a man so difficult to contact that Van Tassel was a year and a half into filming when fate intervened and brought them together outside the courthouse. He was now working with the District Attorney, a position he received after failing to secure Melissa’s freedom.

“The system is not broken, it was built this way,” is how Van Tassel describes it, and it’s the crux of a story peppered with corruption and deceit. Without unpacking the twists and turns of Melissa’s case, it is vital to understand when watching that she is no exception to this treatment; just this year alone there have been five exonerees who spent a collective of 129 years on death row. This film also comes at a time of contention where the Federal system has reinstated executions after a seventeen-year hiatus, resulting in seven deaths in three months amidst a global pandemic, with a further three scheduled for the upcoming weeks.

Van Tassel’s film is a strong case for abolition, and it arrives at a time where conversations on the necessity of criminal justice reform are prominent. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have expressed a strong interest in removing the Federal death penalty, in doing so perhaps encouraging the remaining states that utilise it to follow suit. There’ll be many decades, perhaps centuries, of restoration and education required to follow this, and The State Of Texas Vs Melissa is one of the many resources that will provide agency for this. It paints such a powerful and compassionate portrait of a woman of whom the system has failed, and hopefully, this film will be the final tipping point of justice for Melissa and her family.


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