Documentary Releases: The State of Texas vs. Melissa (2020) - Reviewed

French-American investigative journalist Sabrina Van Tassel has gone after the prison system in her documentary films more than a few times over the years, starting with The Silenced Walls about the French Drancy internment camp followed by Women on Death Row which introduced the director to Melissa Lucio, the subject of her latest film The State of Texas vs. Melissa.  Following in the footsteps of her prior films as well as the recently released prison documentary 1275 Days, the film follows the case of a Texan who became the first Hispanic woman to be sentenced to death in the state. 

After paramedics were called to a residence on February 17, 2007, an unresponsive two-year old child was found who died shortly thereafter.  The child’s mother, Melissa Lucio, was arrested and charged with murder due to evidence of child abuse.  Having been on death row for more than 13 years, the documentary chronicles an ongoing yet-to-be-overturned battle with the court system to appeal Melissa’s case.  As of 2021, after the release of the documentary the appeal was denied once more and Melissa remains on death row.
A case with a myriad of loopholes and an apparent instance of trial court interference in Melissa’s right to an attorney, The State of Texas vs. Melissa is a generally engrossing if not a little one-sided documentary about one woman pitted against an apparent miscarriage of justice.  Moreover, the film illustrates how Melissa Lucio may have been played as a pawn to the district attorney who utilized her case to garner another election win.  Most of the film is comprised of in-prison interviews with Melissa who maintains her innocence and her extended surviving family members eager to bail their mother out of prison. 
More or less a deeper exploration of the subject of Melissa Lucio glimpsed in the Women on Death Row documentary, The State of Texas vs. Melissa is well meaning.  As a work of documentary filmmaking it is a fraction of what, say, Errol Morris did with his iconic wrongful conviction documentary The Thin Blue Line which did manage to exonerate its subject from incarceration.  

That said, whatever your stance on the case of Melissa Lucio is (many still feel strongly she is guilty), Sabrina Van Tassel is clearly an experienced journalist with a natural gift for the documentary form worth seeking out.  The State of Texas vs. Melissa is unlikely to change the minds that have already been made up about Melissa’s case but it will shed some new light on the inner workings on the case as well as provide an introduction to the work of Sabrina Van Tassel.

--Andrew Kotwicki