By Jess Fenton
9th July 2021

If we've learned one thing about ourselves over the last few years it's that we love a murder documentary. Oh boy. Can't get enough. Whether it's a series, a podcast or a documentary feature, we just gobble it all up. But it also means that we as an audience are more discerning these days. And while an intriguing murder, a miscarriage of justice and everything in between can make for a great story, it's the storytelling that can let them down.

Melissa Lucio is 52 years old, a mother of 14 (her last two twins were born in prison), and she's the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death in the state of Texas. Melissa has been sitting on death row for the last decade, having been convicted of the death of her toddler daughter, Mariah. Unfortunately, we live in a time where, instead of simply gasping and thinking, "She got what she deserved," we know that the justice system - regardless of where you are in the world - is so perverse and racially unjust, we now have to ask, "Did she actually do it? And if so, why?" 'The State of Texas vs Melissa' explores just that.


Throughout the film, we're shown horrendous crime investigation photos of the victim's bruised body - her alleged abuse the tipping point for Melissa's conviction. We hear from Melissa's own children, some so grown they now have families of their own. The film talks to Melissa's mother, sister, friends, lawyers, detectives and witnesses to her life and situation. We're also privy to her interrogation video. And we come to understand two things: Melissa was a repeat victim of abuse herself, and she did not kill or harm her child.

When it comes to documentaries of this nature, we can't help but become armchair experts, internet sleuths and amateur forensic scientists. There are even documentaries about that. So we know what questions we want to be asked and answered, and what evidence we need to see to formulate our "verdict". Unfortunately, 'The State of Texas vs. Melissa' takes a very superficial approach to her case. Based solely on hearsay and some interviews, the filmmakers haven't conducted their own real investigation here. Even Melissa's socioeconomic status, her past and her race aren't really scrutinised - rather mentioned - to find out why these would be factors that led to her conviction.

Unfortunately 'The State of Texas vs. Melissa' takes a very superficial approach to her case.

Sure, the film offers up the corrupt politicians and justice workers to help frame a better story and get people angry. However, this film would not pass "the pub test". Of course Melissa's story is sad, tragic, deserves attention, and of all the people involved in this case, Melissa is the last person who should be sitting in a prison cell. But as a piece of filmmaking, this is not going to change anyone's life or get people fired up. It's just another on a long list of racially and politically motivated injustices within the American system.

Looking for more Melbourne Documentary Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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