Nearly a quarter of a century ago, a little girl named JonBenét Ramsey was murdered . Like so many other idle observers, I immediately assumed one or more members of her family were the killers. It wasn’t until many years later when I read John E. Douglas’s and Mark Olshanker’s tome, The Cases that Haunt Us, that I questioned that assumption.
Douglas, the famous FBI profiler, argues persuasively in that book against the (often contradictory) theories of family involvement. There was ample procedural and physical evidence to question, but the point he made that weighed most heavily on me is that while parents have been known to kill family members, murderous rage doesn’t simply appear out of nowhere. It is usually, he argued, part of a pattern, often an escalating one. And when it reaches that point, it doesn’t simply disappear.
In The State of Texas vs. Melissa, Sabrina van Tassel lays out her case that Melissa Lucio was also falsely accused of murdering her infant daughter. The film begins with film clips from Lucio’s police interrogation that eventually led to a “confession.” Anyone who has seen The Central Park Five or followed that case can see the psychological effects of bullying and intimidation as they are unfolding. Lucio’s psychiatrist even argues that Lucio does what victims of childhood abuse often do; she capitulated to the story of angry, powerful men even though that story was the exact opposite of what she knew to be true.
If I started the film thinking about the Ramsey case and rushes to judgment, I spent most of the second half remembering Aland Derhsowitz’s claim in Fundamental Cases: The Twentieth-Century Courtroom Battles that Changed our Nation that inequities with how the death penalty is applied are rooted as much in economic hardships as in straight-up racism. Lucio’s appeals turned on arguments of ineffective counsel; her lawyers did not even question the tactics leading to the confession or the validity of it. She didn’t have, nor could she afford, the sorts of lawyers that made us question initial impressions in the Ramsey case.
The dully familiar ring about some of these underlying causes is a problem the film never entirely overcomes, even if it is never less than competent when depicting them. The word “normalize” has become part of the political and cultural landscape in the last four years. Have we now heard enough stories — not just fictional speculations but convincing documentaries — of wrongful death row convictions that we’ve become numb to the outrage? Do high profile cases like the Ramsey case draw attention to systemic fault lines, or do we treat them as shocking outliers? As more and more stories like Lucio’s are brought to light, do we lose sight of how fundamentally such cases shatter families and consume lives?
I’m sure lawyers and death-row advocates have learned that judiciaries such as we have in Texas don’t respond well to emotional appeals. But that’s a Catch-22. The tone one has to take in an appeals courtroom is somewhat different than that of an advocate making a case to the jury of the public. The film is effective, and I recommend it, but it struggles to find a frame for the story that makes it significant beyond the bare facts of the individual case. It tries near the end to make a point about Texas and about politicians running for office. It tries to pack an emotional punch with a visit between Lucio and her son. Yet each of these scenes is in some way … subdued.
I suspect those who are on death row or serving long term sentences can only survive by not allowing the highs to get too high or the lows too low. When one is in the middle of a long-standing trauma, every morsel of emotional energy must be harvested and only cautiously spent. There is thus a flatness to the emotional tone of the film that I hated myself for getting frustrated at but which I honestly noticed.
Is it possible to be just one more story about a person imprisoned who probably shouldn’t have been? How many such stories do we need to hear before we assent that this happens too often? More importantly, in a time when media viewers are bombarded daily with stories of injustices to be be outraged about, when does our outrage fatigue become indistinguishable from indifference?
The State of Texas vs. Melissa comes to VOD on October 20, 2020 from FilmRise.