By: Hooman Razavi
As Bianca Jagger once commented “The death penalty is being applied in the United States as a fatal lottery.” Her message conveys the sense of those opposed to capital punishment regardless of the circumstance and gravity of the crime. The State of Texas VS. Melissa directed by veteran French-American documentary filmmaker “Sabrina Van Tassel” explores a legal case and journey of Melissa Lucio who is convicted for killing her daughter in the state of Texas. Watching the film may polarize the opinions on the issue of death penalty but at least it showcases the trials and tribulations of a mother who has fought the court system for over 10 years wholeheartedly.
The State of Texas Vs. Melissa takes the viewer to see the legal proceeding against Melissa Lucio, the main protagonist who is accused of murdering her daughter “Maria” and as such put into jail for the past ten years awaiting final decision, while sitting on the death row. The film shows many facets of Melissa’s life, motherhood, story of her other 13 children, house and neighborhood she lived and the state of Law in Texas. In addition, it depicts the two sides and players who argue for and against her in the court. In brief, Melissa’s life has changed dramatically since Maria is gone; and the viewer dives to see the torment and implicitly form a judgement.
From the opening scene, the viewer is introduced to a mother who is accused of murdering her own daughter. At first sight, she must be the villain and any sympathy must be a no-brainer. This take is quickly countered by the storytelling and depiction of what she has gone through and those, including her family and the legal professions who have tried to exonerate or convict her. Melissa is also a mother to another 13 children. She narrates her full story of life, difficult moment and challenges the account that she was the one responsible for Maria’s death. She is a fighter but the system that is she fighting against seems determined to finally seek the highest penalty regardless of the factual and evidentiary pieces made available throughout the film through dialogues and visuals. Melissa is shown to be mostly behind bar or in the confession room, but this current situation is no different from her early years that she was molested and had to take refuge into an early marriage. The film makes us to see Melissa not only as a suspect but as a mother, sister, brother and a character with flaws and strength; artistically, her acting and genuine presence proves those attributes.
Analysis & Interpretation
The first tendency to analyze the film is to focus on the issue of death penalty, which is fair. The documentary as evident in the number of interviews it conducts with all players involved, including forensic pathologists, psychologists, her immediate family members and Texas legal professionals, shows a favorable side to her story and clearly signal her innocence and flaws with the process and the decision to convict her. In the film, the viewer can get a full picture of her story from multiple perspective. From a formalistic perspective, this aspect is achieved by effective editing, which counterintuitively enrich the documentary but may cause some to question whether the story is fabricated to some extent through this feature. The weight of evidence presented clearly shows that Meilssa’s conviction is problematic. For instance, we got to know that the court does not want to accept some pieces that may hint at Maria falling the stairs, Alex hitting Maria or the testimony of all family members that she has never been violent, though neglectful. In a sense, though one can call the narrative biased in that sense, eliciting her acquittal, but it seems that these facts of the case are strong enough and presented in such manner to justify this cinematic storytelling.
From other formalistic views, one can notice that the camera captures not only the court room and the family environment and the house in which Maria died, but the whole city in which her family was born and currently living. The aerial shots and the scenes in the car where different characters are in the road, show the need to look at this issue holistically and the distance that is created between Melissa and each member of the family. In addition, to downplay the emotional charge, in some scenes, Melissa is absent from the frame when she narrates her story (the opening scene) and in other scenes, the use of voice-over, titles and old footages is used to propel the difficult and unsettled story. Nevertheless, Melissa also takes the center stage in many scenes in which she is singly shot in the frame and mostly in defensive position arguing the concerns and questions regarding her role in Maria’s death.
The family dynamic is such a key aspect of plot development as well. Through seeing old footages, interviews with Sonia, Diane, Rene, Hope and other family members one can get a sense of the main protagonist’s life especially how poverty and family abuse have influenced her behaviors. Interestingly family support of Melissa is shown in parallel and in the context of Texas society as they speak a different language and their family member is the first Hispanic in the death row in the state of Texas. The film as argued above make the convincing case that the system, despite all flaws in Melissa’s character such as drug taking, not being a disciplinarian mother and neglectful at times, but she is more the victim of likes of Armando Villalobos and the DA office who want to ensure that she does not get the best of the justice. The ending with tragic tones and lines by Melissa that she may be one day get reunited with her family, albeit in her dreams, reinforces this miscarriage of justice and its lasting impact on Melissa’s family.
In State of Texas VS. Melissa, Sabrina Van Tassel skillfully portrays Melissa’s life and in doing so, convinces the audience through her storytelling and presentation of available evidence why her verdict needs to be overturned. While there is still a ray of hope, but Melissa’s story in Texas and the US. may not be the last of its kind. The deeper questions that the film poses are, can there be an alternative to death penalty and why there must be one. And can the system be reformed, be more humane and how cinema can play a role in this process?