At first there was confusion. Then disbelief. Then tears and screams.
As news of their exoneration reached them and their relatives, the women known as the San Antonio Four, all began to realize—it’s finally over.
“They are innocent. And they are exonerated,” read the plurality ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Elizabeth Ramirez, Anna Vasquez, Kristie Mayhugh, and Cassandra Rivera have fought for 22 years to clear their names since Ramirez’s two nieces, then 7 and 9, accused all four women of a bizarre sexual assault that even spurred talk of Satanism. One of those accusers recanted and said that nothing happened during that 1994 visit. Anti-gay bias seeped into the trials, especially that of Ramirez, who was tried separately and received 37 ½ years.
“I wasn’t expecting this and we just bought a house and all the family is coming over for Thanksgiving,” Ramirez said in a rush of words as she talked about the news. Ramirez had been sleeping yesterday morning when she got a call about the court’s decision.
And then she saw a text from their attorney, Mike Ware, of the Innocence Project of Texas.
“It said, ‘we did it,’ and I ran into my son’s room and I probably scared him because I was just screaming and crying,” Ramirez said. “I didn’t know what to expect and with the elections and the holidays I just was waiting and didn’t know if anything would happen.”
The plurality opinion of the court—seven of the nine judges heard the case and five agreed on “actual innocence”—means the women are now entitled to compensation from the state. From the beginning, all four have said money is not the end goal but to be declared innocent.
“It’s music to my ears,” Vasquez said during a call after first hearing the news. “It’s been 22 years. Twenty-two years. Can you believe that? I want to go straight to the courthouse and tell them I don’t need to be in their system anymore. I don’t have to get permission to go places or leave the state,” she said.
All four women have been out of prison and on bond since 2014—Vasquez had been released a year earlier on parole but also was moved to being out on bond—following a deal with the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office after prosecutors agreed the science that helped prosecute the women was now debunked.
So even though they were no longer behind bars, they had to follow some restrictions and ask for permission to travel, which during 2016 picked up tremendously with the release of Southwest of Salem a documentary about the case.
It was the science that let the women appeal their convictions in the first place. In 2013, the Texas Legislature passed a law that allowed for state habeas applications on basis of so-called “junk science” being used to convict. The law was the first of its kind in the nation to allow for that kind of state-level appeal. The case had to show that scientific evidence known now wasn’t available at the time of the trial and that if the evidence had been presented the person wouldn’t have been convicted. In this case, that was the expert-witness testimony from pediatrician Nancy Kellogg about what she determined was physical evidence of sexual trauma. Kellogg later signed an affidavit stating that if the case was brought today she would have not reached the same conclusion.
The plurality ruling, written by Judge David Newell, states that the scientific evidence was just part of why the court determined the women met their “herculean” burden to prove actual innocence. He pointed to the inconsistencies in statements from the nieces; the fact that a well-known expert who conducts psychosexual examinations for the state determined that she would not be able to treat the women as they were not sex offenders “so there would be nothing to treat;” and that the state’s case should be taken into account, as the state “did not recommend denying or granting relief on actual innocence, but rather stated that, now that it is known that Dr. Kellogg’s testimony in the trials in the 1990’s was wrong” and that “what is left is ‘purely the credibility of the witnesses, which is for the Court to determine.'”
After the ruling, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood released a statement that said, “It has been a long legal process for these women and our Office has worked with the defense to ensure justice was done in this case. With today’s announcement, we believe the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision did that. The court’s opinion has exonerated the women and their convictions are overturned. Today’s ruling prevents any further prosecution of these cases. I pray peace and a new beginning for them.”
Mayhugh echoed all four of the women’s sentiments that even though they can file for compensation from the state, the excitement and happiness comes in knowing they have cleared their names.
“All I can just say is I’m just so happy,” she said. “Happy is not even the best word. I’m just like beyond happy. We’ve been waiting for this for 22 years. I knew eventually it would happen, but now that it has, I’m just in shock. I mean it’s just like I finally have a sense of peace. That closure of this whole ordeal I can shut the door and move forward.”
Mayhugh was at work when she heard the news. She said Ramirez called someone she knew working with Mayhugh and asked her to let her know.
“She came on to the assembly line and she told me, and I had to ask her ‘are you joking?’ And she said no. I really fell to the floor on my knees and started crying.”
Rivera was at the kitchen table with her brother and getting ready to take her niece shopping when she first saw a Facebook post saying that they had been exonerated and then got a call from Ware.
“Me and my brother just started crying uncontrollably. And we just hugged for so long. I called my mom right away and talked to my son and he was crying like a big baby. I haven’t stopped crying ever since I found out.”
Her son, Michael, just celebrated his birthday, and when she told him, “the first thing that came out of his mouth was that [in 2014] it was the best news that I came home right before his birthday, and now the best news ever is that I’m going to be exonerated after another.”
The exoneration comes as Rivera and her partner, Tiffany, plan for their upcoming wedding on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s amazing. We don’t have to wonder what our future will be like anymore,” she said. “We know we get to have one now. And can just live peacefully.”