They always insisted they were innocent. Four women, dubbed the "San Antonio Four," were freed from prison after their sentences were vacated Monday night — after serving more than a decade behind bars. In the late 90s, the four were found guilty of sexually assaulting two young girls. But thanks to updated medical information and one of the girls recanting her testimony, Elizabeth Ramirez, 39, Kristie Mayhugh, 40, and Cassandra Rivera, 38, have been released from Bexar County Jail in Texas. The fourth of the group, Anna Vasquez, 38, was released on parole last year.
The women have always maintained their innocence. The saga begun after Ramirez's two nieces, then aged 7 and 9, accused the women of assaulting them during a weeklong stay at Ramirez's apartment. In 1997, Ramirez was sentenced to 37-and-a-half years in prison. The other three were imprisoned three years later, each facing a 15-year sentence.
As reported by the San Antonio Express-News:
As the nieces then described it to the police and later to jurors, the women called them into the apartment, where they were getting drunk and smoking pot, two of them lounging around topless, and held them by their wrists and ankles, repeatedly violated them, threatened to kill them and their families — then let them take a shower and go about their day. The graphic tale later spurred talk of Satanism.
But in 2012, one of the nieces admitted she actually didn't, actually, remember anything out of the ordinary. An expert medical witness had previously testified that a mark found on one of the girls' genitals was due to sexual trauma, which provided the cornerstone of evidence for the women's conviction. But since then, the experts' testimony had been discounted by the greater scientific community.
The women were released after a judge recommended that an appeals court vacate their 1998 convictions, since they were apparently tainted by faulty victim testimony. Texas is actually setting a precedent, says Director of the Ohio Innocence Project Mark Godsey: A new law, called the "Junk Science Writ," allows inmates to ask for new trials if they were convicted based on outdated scientific evidence.
The four women were lesbians, and San Antonio gay-rights advocate Graciela Sanchez maintains that gay bias back in the '90s played a huge role in the case. "This definitely took place because this was a witch hunt against four lesbians, and four Latina lesbians," she says.
The next step? An appeal for formal exoneration, which would see the women officially declared innocent. Their case now heads to an appeals court, where the women's convictions will be cleared if charges are dismissed. But in order to receive wrongful-conviction compensation from the state, they will have to prove their innocence, not just their lack of guilt. The process could take years.
But first, at Ramirez' request, the women enjoyed a pizza.
"It's a breath of fresh air," Vasquez told press. "It's an awesome feeling. It's like a dream come true."