The San Antonio Four at the Tribeca Film Festival

Sunday, April 17 2016

 

It’s finally over for the women dubbed the “San Antonio Four.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals exonerated them, asserting in plain but forceful language Wednesday that they did not sexually assault two young girls in 1994, for which they spent years in prison.

It was an outcome experts called “rare” and “momentous,” though it came years after lower courts and prosecutors had acknowledged serious doubts about their convictions and allowed them to be released.

Seven of the nine appellate judges heard the case. All agreed the women should get a new trial, and five said the women actually are innocent, a move that paves the way for them to seek state compensation for their imprisonment.

Elizabeth Ramirez, now 42; Cassandra Rivera, 41; Kristie Mayhugh, 42’ and Anna Vasquez, 41, consistently maintained their innocence from the day more than 22 years ago when Ramirez’s nieces, ages 7 and 9, accused the women of brutalizing them while on a weekend visit with their aunt.

The girls said at the time that they were bound and raped, guns pointed at their heads, and threatened with death if they told — though their stories changed significantly every time they described what happened during the investigation and two trials. Jurors heard horrific accounts of orgy-like sexual predation. A prosecution expert witness speculated about links to Satanism.

But major questions about the cases, including the forensic evidence on which prosecutors had leaned heavily, were spotlighted in a San Antonio Express-News report in 2010. The women’s fight for exoneration eventually garnered national and international media attention. Because the four defendants are lesbians, they became a rallying point for LGBTQ activists.

In 2012, the younger accuser recanted her story. Vasquez was released from prison on parole that year, having become eligible after serving 12 years. The other three were released on bond in 2013 pending the outcome of legal efforts to overturn the convictions. Ramirez had been in prison the longest — 16 years.

It all ended the day before Thanksgiving of 2016. The four had “won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime. That they are innocent. That they deserve to be exonerated,” said the opinion by Judge David Newell, joined by two other judges on the state’s highest criminal court.

“These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated.”

Ramirez, Rivera and Vasquez expressed shock and relief in an interview hours after the ruling was issued.

“Being known as a child molester is the worst thing you can possibly imagine,” Rivera said through tears, with her longtime friends at her side. “We always thought we’d never see the end, and we prayed.”

“We were just in limbo,” Vasquez said.

“It really makes us thankful,” Ramirez said. “We can finally move on.”

Vasquez said the entire experience has steered her toward a career as an advocate to help others who are wrongfully convicted, Vasquez said.

Mayhugh was working and could not be reached for comment.

“This is certainly a momentous case,” said their attorney, Mike Ware, director of Innocence Texas and a former Dallas County prosecutor. The appeals panel “carefully read the record and did the right thing. It’s a courageous opinion.”

Ware said he would file a motion to expedite sending the case back to Bexar County, and that he expected District Attorney Nico LaHood to file a motion to dismiss the case.

LaHood had said he had “serious reservations” about the convictions last February, when Senior District Judge Pat Priest recommended the women receive new trials because the new evidence they offered after their release hadn’t sufficiently proven their innocence.

Lahood said then that he did not believe pursuing the cases would be in the interest of justice. On Wednesday, he commended the appeals panel for having “a moral compass” to do the right thing.

“This is not a common occurrence,” LaHood said of the ruling. “They made a finding of actual innocence. This is better than an acquittal — it’s as if it never happened.”

“It’s extraordinary,” agreed state District Judge Ron Rangel, who was not involved in the appeals and who teaches court systems and processes at Northwest Vista College. “The highest court in Texas is not saying they’re not guilty, they are saying they are innocent. It’s very rare.”

Ramirez was convicted in 1997 and the other three in 1998 of aggravated sexual assault of a child.

Stephanie Limon Martinez, when she recanted her testimony in 2012, told the Express-News, “Whatever it takes to get them out, I’m going to do. I can’t live my life knowing that four women are sleeping in a cage because of me.” Her older sister maintained the assaults occurred.

Pediatrician Nancy Kellogg’s examination of the girls and trial testimony were key advantages for prosecutors, who argued the girls’ changing stories were a result of their youth and fear. Ware said Kellogg recanted that testimony, acknowledging the physical evidence she presented no longer is accepted as indicating abuse.

The case was the subject of a documentary film that opened in San Antonio in September, “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four.”

The women told the Express-News when the documentary was released that the toughest part of prison was serving time in solitary for refusing to take part in the sex offender program in their prisons. Attending it was a condition for early parole, but it required inmates to admit deviant behavior, which they couldn’t do.

“How are we going to admit to something that never occurred?” Mayhugh said then.

The women, facing trial and possible lengthy prison sentences when they were in their early 20s, similarly had refused to plead guilty in exchange for lighter punishment. All that time away from their families was painful and difficult, Vasquez said, but they were not guilty and fighting to prove it was the right thing to do.

“I’m still in shock, but glad the state and people responsible came to their senses,” said Michael Rivera, 25, Cassandra Rivera’s son. He was 9 when his mother went to prison.

“I’ve always supported my mom, same thing with the rest of the girls,” he said, adding that he’d be alongside his mother when she weds her longtime partner on New Year’s Eve.