Texas’ highest criminal court on Wednesday exonerated four San Antonio women who spent almost 15 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting two girls.
The ruling opens the door for the women to seek potentially millions of dollars in state compensation.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the so-called ‘San Antonio 4’ – Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez – were innocent. The decision will allow the criminal records of all four women to be expunged.
The women were convicted in 1998, after two of Ramirez’s nieces, ages seven and nine, accused them of holding them by the wrists and ankles, sexually assaulting and threatening to kill them in 1994.
One of the nieces later recanted, saying another family member threatened her into making the statements.
In this April 22, 2015 file photo, four San Antonio women known as the San Antonio 4 from right, Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera look on during a hearing in San Antonio, Texas
Video courtesy Pamela Powell
‘Those defendants have 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,’ Judge David Newell wrote in the majority opinion. ‘These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated.’
The girl who recanted, who is named Stephanie and is now in her late 20s, came forward in 2012 and told the San Antonio-Express in an interview that she wanted her aunt and friends out of prison.
‘Whatever it takes to get them out, I’m going to do. I can’t live myself knowing that four women are sleeping in a cage because of me,’ she said.
Elizabeth Ramirez (left) was given a 37-year prison sentence in 1998. She and Cassandra Rivera (right), who was given 15 years, were 20 at the time of their arrest
Kristie Mayhugh (pictured left) and Anna Vasquez (right) were also handed 15-year sentences in 1998
Stephanie had told police that her aunt and her friends had violently turned on her when she and her sister were visiting Ramirez’s one-bedroom apartment
The girls described a debauched orgy to police and later, to jurors, claiming the women called them into the apartment, where they were getting drunk and smoking pot, and repeatedly violated them.
But when she recanted, Stephanie conceded the visit was uneventful, even ‘boring.’
Mike Ware, an attorney with the Innocence Project who represented the women, said the women were ‘ecstatic’ after learning about the ruling. The nonprofit, which investigates possible wrongful convictions, took on the case more than a decade after the women were convicted.
‘It’s going to be a very good Thanksgiving for all four of them,’ he said. ‘The court has issued a very well-reasoned and excellent opinion. Really a courageous opinion.’
The ruling declares the women’s ‘actual innocence’ and makes them eligible to seek millions of dollars from the state under a law allowing compensation for the wrongfully imprisoned.
Ware said he will ask the court to quickly issue a formal mandate, after which the women would be able to file a claim with the state that, if granted, would pay each of them $80,000 for each year spent in prison.
Elizabeth Ramirez, center, is greeted by family after she was released from the Bexar County Jail in November 2013
Cassandra Rivera, center, followed by Elizabeth Ramirez and Kristie Mayhugh were freed in 2013 after a judge agreed that their convictions were tainted by faulty witness testimony
Elizabeth Ramirez, right, 38, and Cassandra Rivera, 37, in the Hobby Unit in Marlin, Texas, in September 2012
Ramirez was given a 37-year prison sentence, while Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera each got 15-year sentences after being convicted. Vasquez was paroled in 2012, and the other three women were released in 2013 after challenges were raised about expert testimony.
But the court’s opinion on Wednesday relied heavily on the niece who recanted her testimony. The opinion said the two girls’ testimony was so intertwined that a jury could not rely on one without the other. The court also said the ‘newly available evidence of innocence undermines the legally sufficient, but hard-to-believe versions of events that led to the convictions of these four women.’
A concurring opinion by two other Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judges would also grant exoneration based on the challenges to the expert testimony and recantation. The opinion said ‘no reasonable juror would have convicted them’ considering those factors and other ‘weak and contradictory’ testimony presented at their trials.