In September 1994, four San Antonio women—Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Anna Vasquez, and Kristie Mayhugh—were arrested and charged with sexually assaulting two nieces, ages 9 and 7, of Ramirez. All admitted lesbians, the four women soon found themselves the focus of intense local and national media attention. They all maintained their innocence, and it was almost inevitable that they would become known as the San Antonio Four.
The San Antonio Four
Ramirez was the first to stand trial for the specific offenses of aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child. The state’s theory of the case, according to Bexar County prosecutor Philip Kazen, was that Ramirez had “held a 9-year-old girl up as a sacrificial lamb to her friends.” The two young girls were actually the daughters of Ramirez’s sister’s ex-boyfriend.
Allegations Inconsistent and Incredible
The testimony of the two young girls was riddled with inconsistencies—certainly not credible enough, standing alone, to sustain a conviction.
The most damning evidence came from a “medical expert” named Dr. Nancy Kellogg who told the jury she had examined nearly 3500 sexual assault victims, mostly children. Her examination of the two child victims in this case revealed scarred hymens. The expert testified that the scars had been caused by penetration that occurred around the time the girls said they had been molested by Ramirez and her three friends.
Medical Expert Gave Junk Science Testimony
Dr. Kellogg’s testimony was “junk science.” It was completely discredited in a 2007 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (“AAP”) which concluded that torn or injured hymens of sexual assault victims, particularly children, do not leave scars.
One year after the Ramirez trial, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals identified two types of “permissible scientific evidence” under Rule 702 of the Texas Rules of Evidence: “hard” science evidence, such as physics or mathematics, and “soft” science evidence, such as “social sciences or fields that are based primarily upon experience and training as opposed to scientific method …”
“Soft science” evidence has in recent years become known as “junk science.”
Soft science has three requisites of reliability to be admissible in a criminal trial in Texas: the field of expertise must be a legitimate one, the subject matter of an expert’s testimony is within the scope of that field, and the expert’s testimony properly relies upon or utilizes the principles involved in that field.
To satisfy the burden of these requisites, the Court of Criminal Appeals has said the prosecution need only to establish that the “scientific principle [in question] is generally accepted in the professional community and has been accepted in a sufficient number of trial courts …”
Dr. Kellogg’s testimony was admissible under then prevailing rules of evidence because it had been accepted in other cases, but the theory she presented was not supported by any reliable medical studies in place at the time.
Sentenced to 37 ½ Years in Prison
That theory certainly should not have been enough to convict Ramirez or support her 37½ -year sentence. Rivera, Mayhugh, and Vasquez were convicted three years later and each received 15-year prison terms.
In any event, the 2007 AAP study slightly cracked open the door to freedom for the four women. They filed a writ of habeas corpus seeking a new trial based on newly-discovered evidence which, under longstanding Texas habeas jurisprudence, was virtually impossible to achieve. Newly available scientific evidence alone was not a basis for habeas relief unless it supported a claim of “actual innocence” or “false testimony.”
That was, and for the most part remains, the law in Texas.
International Spotlight Stays on Case
Still, it was an opening that certainly fueled what had become an international movement to establish the innocence of the four women. It was enough to cause the San Antonio Express News to conduct an in-depth investigation in 2010 into the case and report its findings which challenged virtually every piece of evidence against the four women.
This sort of increasing media attention being given to the women’s claims of innocence certainly influenced the Texas parole board in November 2012 to release Rivera on parole. It also spurred negotiations between then Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed and the attorneys representing the women to have the remaining three released on a “signature bond,” also known as a “personal recognizance“ bond.
That happened in November 2013.
Freed on Bond
The District Attorney also allowed Rivera to be freed under a signature bond thereby freeing her from the parole restrictions she had been living under the previous year, such as living as a registered “sex offender.”
The critical event that allowed the San Antonio Four to be released on bond was a new law (Art. 11.073, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure) enacted by the Texas Legislature, which became effective on September 1, 2013.
This new law permits a habeas corpus applicant to show by a “preponderance of the evidence” that he or she would not have been convicted if the newly discovered scientific evidence (such as the 2007 AAP study in the San Antonio Four case) had been presented at trial.
Defense Lawyers Doggedly Pursue Case
The new law certainly aided the San Antonio Four’s excellent defense team, led by Keith Hampton and Mike Ware, executive director of the Texas Innocence Project, in convincing Reed that the four women should be released on bond.
In April 2015, Judge Pat Priest conducted an exhaustive hearing in the case. He heard from one of the victims who recanted her testimony in 2010, examined polygraph evidence, and listened to the testimony of expert witnesses who thoroughly refuted Dr. Kellogg’s trial testimony.
In his closing argument, Hampton pleaded with the court to “exonerate” the four women.
Prosecutor Stands Moot
The District Attorney’s Office, now under the leadership of DA Nicholas “Nico” LaHood, did not contest the hearing. Prosecutors offered no opening statement, did not make objections, and did not refute any evidence presented by the defense team.
Additionally, significant, credible evidence was presented at the hearing that the father of the two child victims had coached them into making the false allegation because Ramirez had rebuffed his unwanted sexual advances.
- L. Martinez told the court that when she informed her father, Joseph Limon, about her decision to recant her testimony, he immediately lied to Child Protective Services telling the agency she had abused her own child. CPS temporarily removed her children from her home, but she was quickly exonerated by a Harris County judge on the abuse allegations.
But at the end of the day all of the new scientific evidence and testimony was not enough.
Court Recommends New Trial, Not Actual Innocence
On February 24, 2016, Judge Priest recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that the four women should be granted a new trial.
The judge, however, stopped short of declaring the women “actually innocent” of the crime.
“Though the newly-evidence severely ‘muddies the water’ … the evidence does not unquestionably establish innocence as required by” case law, the judge declared. “Therefore, applicants should have a new trial, but their claim of having sufficiently established their actual innocence should be denied.”
Judge Priest pointed to the testimony of the other victim, who has not recanted her testimony, as the primary basis for his finding that the four women’s “assertion of proof of actual innocence falls short of the mark” because it cannot be said that “no reasonable juror” would not vote to convict them.
Exonerate the San Antonio Four
We believe the judge’s ruling misses the mark. These women should have been exonerated, plain and simple.
A jury is composed of twelve people. We understand it is possible that after hearing the new scientific evidence and the recanted testimony of one victim, one or more jurors could still find the four women guilty on the testimony of the one remaining witness. But there is no way, we believe, that a jury of 12 reasonable jurors would unanimously find the four women guilty given the new set of circumstances.
The ultimate issue of exoneration will now be decided by the Court of Criminal Appeals, hopefully sometime later this year. The court can adopt Priest’s ruling in whole or instruct the judge to exonerate the four. The court could also reverse Priest’s ruling and reinstate the four women’s convictions—something not likely to happen.
DA Doesn’t Foresee Trying Cases Again
DA LaHood said if the case comes back to his office for a new trial, he does not foresee trying the cases again.
“I have some serious reservations about this case, and I don’t believe pursuing these cases would be in the interest of justice,” the DA told the local media.
We would question the logic of District Attorney LaHood. If he has serious reservations about the convictions, enough to allow the women to be released on bond pending resolution of their cases, and he says he will not retry them, why not agree with the defense or dismiss the charges altogether? Wouldn’t that be the intellectually honest position to take?
We remain hopeful that, in the end, the interests of justice will prevail and the four women will receive a complete exoneration—something the Court of Criminal Appeals should do expeditiously.