Pendance pitched itself as a screenwriting centric film festival. So it’s a curious to see that the fest’s programmers chose two documentaries in its feature slots. It’s a gamble that mostly works though. One of those documentaries, The State of Texas vs. Melissa, centers on the first Hispanic woman on America’s death row. Melissa Lucio there because the Texan courts convicted her of abusing and murdering her youngest daughter. It’s a crime that her defense team and most of her family claims she didn’t do. One of the unorthodox ways of making Lucio more sympathetic to viewers is showing her in jail, letting her tell her side of the story. It also shows some of the people on the other side of the prison’s walls. She might never spend time with her children and grandchildren on the outside. Showing those grandchildren bring home the emotions in this story.
Although it’s imaginable that some viewers might see something else within Lucio’s family. They’ll wonder why there’s more of this instead of the other beats that they can find in most media about crime. How did a supposedly innocent woman end up on death row? Most viewers who know the subgenre know one of many reasons why, but the movie takes it time to get to one of many possible answers. There’s the obvious alternative suspect. There’s also the misconduct of a district attorney with his own legal brushes, whose department of lawyers never bothered to look for a suspect other than Lucio. Those aspects are interesting enough, but the film could have also explored more the psychology of a woman who won’t defend herself at someone else’s expense. As I write this, this doc never ceases to shock, reminding viewers that miscarriages of justice and its surprising ripple effects.