After two decades since they were accused of a crime they didn’t commit and languished in prison for more than a decade, four Latina lesbians from San Antonio are finally free. This morning the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez were cleared on all charges and legally exonerated after being convicted of sexually assaulting two little girls in 1997.
“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. These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated. This Court grants them the relief they seek,” wrote Judge David Newell in the court’s opinion.
Seven of the nine judges heard the case and they all agreed the women should get a new trial and five of them said they are innocent — a declaration that rarely happens in today’s criminal justice system and may lead to compensation for time spent in prison in the future.
The women were accused of sexually assaulting Ramirez’s two young nieces in 1994. Since then, the San Antonio Four have denied the accusations and proclaimed their innocence — they turned down plea bargains and even had to face solitary confinement while in prison because they refused to take part in the sex offender program. The women were tried and convicted in 1997 and were sent to prison in 2000.
In 2012, one of the girls recanted her testimony. In addition to her recantation, the forensics used against the women is now debunked science and is no longer used to indicate sexual abuse in young girls. Vasquez was released on parole in 2012 and the others were released on bond in 2013 but they all were still labeled sex offenders and had a record.
Their exoneration has been a years-long process and has happened with the help of many people and organizations who believed in the women including the Innocence Project. On Friday, I published an interview with Austin-based filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi to talk about her documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, which follows their story and had a huge role in helping the women become exonerated.
I’m so elated to hear that these women are finally cleared and can continue to live their lives to the fullest with their families. The San Antonio Four’s exoneration serves as a ray of hope in these dark times and reminds us to continue to fight like hell for justice.
You can catch Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four on Investigation Discovery on Sunday, Nov. 27 at 9 a.m. EST.