The remaining members of the San Antonio Four, women who were convicted of sexually assaulting two children more than 15 years ago, were freed on Monday under a new Texas law that allows a review of convictions if it is suspected the scientific opinions used in the case are now flawed.
Judge Mary Roman, presiding over the 175th District Court, released Elizabeth Ramirez, 39, Cassandra Rivera, 28 and Kristie Mayhugh, 40, following an agreement with prosecutors. The fourth woman, Anna Vasquez, 38, was paroled last year.
The women were arrested in 1994 after two of Ramirez’s nieces, then aged 7 and 9, accused them of a drug and alcohol fueled sexual assault at Ramirez’s apartment. Ramirez, the so-called ringleader, was sentenced to 37 years in prison while the others received 15 year terms. All four have always denied the charges, and several rights groups have backed their campaign for a retrial based on what has been seen as flawed evidence.
At long last, that chance may be in sight.
Convicted Based on Debunked Science
The four women were convicted, in part, on grounds of the medical testimony of expert witness Dr. Nancy Kellogg who testified that the victims showed evidence of vaginal trauma and a scar that would be consistent with a physical assault.
However, Dr. Kellogg has since recanted that view saying that an American Academy of Pediatrics study in 2007 concluded that injuries do not leave such scars, and as such she could not claim with “any degree of medical certainty” that an assault had in fact taken place.
Kellog is also on record at the time as saying that the attack was “Satanic-related” and, in her opinion, something that was more common among homosexuals. This case came in the wake of a national media frenzy surrounding so-called satanic child sex-abuse prosecutions in the 1980s and early 1990s. A systematic analysis of these cases, though, showed that there were in fact very few that actually had a satanic or ritualistic element.
There’s also evidence that prosecuting attorney Philip Kazen traded on anti-gay attitudes in order to try to bolster the victims’ case, implying that lesbians were more likely to commit sexual assaults against children than straight women, and using hyperbole like, ”We’re going to ask you to believe a 9-year-old little girl who was sacrificed on the altar of lust.”
It also happens that in 2012 one of the girls changed her story and said that the attack did not take place. “I can’t take back what I did, but if I could talk to all of them in one room I would just say I’m sorry,” she is reported as saying. “I’m sorry for ruining them.”
Even before all that though, experts had said that none of the women particularly fit the profile for child abusers and as such the evidence would have to be compelling — and it was not.
Why the Women were Freed: The Michael Morton Act
The San Antonio Four case is one of the first to be challenged under a new Texas law, Senate Bill 344 or the Michael Morton Act. The law, which is the first of its kind in the country, is named after a man who was wrongfully convicted in 1987 for the murder of his wife Christine Morton. He spent nearly 25 years in prison before DNA evidence was examined and the real culprit was identified. Morton was released on October 4, 2011.
The legislation is designed to prevent and remedy miscarriages of justice by allowing cases to remain open-book, in essence giving Texas’ criminal justice system scope to re-evaluate cases even after a defendant has been sentenced and to grant defendants new trials if there is reason to suspect that the forensic science used at the time of prosecution may have been unfit in light of new medical and forensic knowledge. It is also hoped that by keeping open the process of discovery, Texas will take a more measured approach to its death penalty cases.
While three of the women in this latest case were released on Monday, Anna Vasquez had been out on parole for over a year. She is said to have greeted the news warmly but has pointed out the conviction continues to impact her life regardless. Conditions of her parole mean she is still prevented from going within 500 feet of any public building or place where children gather. While the release of the other women does not immediately affect Vasquez’s case, she has told the Huffington Post that she finds the prospect of vindication exciting.
The agreement reached in the San Antonio Four case has seen Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed go on record as saying prosecutors will not pursue a further conviction as they believe that the medical testimony used in the 1997 trial will not stand up in court. The defendants’ cases are now to be reviewed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals which could order a new trial or, if the evidence is so glaringly lacking, could clear the defendants of all charges.
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