This story was co-published with The Marshall Project.
Any courtroom lawyer will tell you that young children are among the most difficult witnesses to put on the stand. Their stories can shift over time, they easily contradict themselves during cross-examination, and though they can swear to tell "the whole truth and nothing but the truth," it is not always clear they understand what that means.
Nowhere is this problem trickier than in a case of sexual abuse where the child is the only victim and witness, a dynamic that took full form during the so-called 'satanic abuse' cases in the 1980s and 1990s. These cases may have faded in the collective memory, but from California to Texas to New York, communities were roiled by sensational tales of animal sacrifices, murders of babies, and violent orgies that children were sworn to keep secret by powerful cabals of daycare workers. Many believed the cases were linked, while doubters saw such bizarre claims as products of a Salem-like hysteria.
The accusations all started with children. As a generation of journalists and lawyers discovered that the victims had been subjected to faulty interviewing techniques and flawed medical exams, most of these cases were debunked, even when the children did not formally recant their accusations.
But the case of four women from San Antonio, who were convicted of molesting two young girls in the late 1990s, has endured, stretched out over more than two decades of trials and a years-long effort to free them. (I first began reporting on the case for The Texas Observer.
On April 22, the case will enter its final act as the two alleged victims take the stand. Now in their late 20s, one still maintains the abuse took place, and the other says the two were coerced to make a false accusation. After each is cross-examined, a judge will decide the likely truth—essentially who is more credible—and make a recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The state's highest criminal court will then decide whether the women should be declared innocent and entitled to compensation from the state, or, in an unlikely but plausible scenario, sent back to prison.
The girls accused the four women of holding them down, inserting various objects into them, and threatening them with a gun.
The women whose fates depend on the hearing have been branded the "San Antonio Four" by their supporters. They fall into an increasingly visible category of prisoners who have been freed due to evidence of a wrongful conviction but have not been formally declared "innocent" by courts. They were arrested in 1994 for sexually molesting the two girls, who were seven- and nine-years-old at the time. Elizabeth Ramirez, the girls' aunt, was considered the ringleader. In 1997, Ramirez was sentenced to 37.5 years while her three friends, Anna Vasquez, Cassie Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh, got 15 years each in a separate 1998 trial. The girls had stayed with "Aunt Liz" for a week because their father had been busy with work. Mayhugh was Ramirez's roommate, and the other two were friends who often spent time at the apartment.
The girls accused the four women of holding them down, inserting various objects into them, and threatening them with a gun. Or a knife—their stories changed multiple times, though they always had overtones of witchcraft, leading one doctor who examined them to wonder if the crimes were "satanic." The women had come out as lesbian to their families—Anna and Cassie were dating at the time—and the idea that their sexual orientation explained their purported crimes came up multiple times throughout the investigation and trials.
In 2006, a reclusive teacher and one-time dog sledder from the Yukon Territory named Darrell Otto began exchanging letters with Ramirez. She persuaded him of her innocence, and he convinced several journalists and activists to investigate the case. They in turn convinced a lawyer, Mike Ware, to file new appeals for the women. Doctors reviewed the original medical exams of the victims and found that the original doctor, Nancy Kellogg, erred in testifying that the girls had definitely been sexually assaulted; at most, Kellogg later admitted, the results were inconclusive.
In my reporting, I discovered a messy family saga. Ramirez's family believed the two victims had been coached by their father, Javier Limon. He was an ex-boyfriend of Ramirez's sister who the family said had made romantic advances toward the much younger Ramirez. When Ramirez rebuffed him, her family claimed, Limon retaliated by coaching his daughters to accuse her of molestation, and the girls ended up accusing Ramirez's three friends as well.
Implausible as this scenario may seem, questionable allegations of child abuse often permeate bitter divorces and custody battles. Websites offering advice to men going through divorce often include sections on how to deal with being accused of abuse.
At a burger joint one evening in 2013, Limon strongly denied this account. He told me he never propositioned Elizabeth Ramirez and that his two young daughters came to him unsolicited to accuse their aunt and her friends. He said he'd done what any father would do: gone to the authorities.
Limon had reason to be defensive. The year before, in August 2012, one of his daughters, named in the public record as Stephanie Limon (now Stephanie Martinez), announced that Javier had coached her to accuse the women and that she was never molested. Twenty-five years old and a mother herself, Stephanie read to a camera from a sheet of notebook paper in the backseat of a car, saying her father forced her as a 7-year-old to accuse her beloved aunt. "I was threatened," she recalled, "and I was told that if I did tell the truth that I would end up in prison, taken away, and even get my ass beat." (A film about the case is also in the works.)
With that recantation and the disputed medical evidence, Mike Ware, the lawyer, convinced a judge and the Bexar County District Attorney that the women were entitled to a new look at the case, and in the meantime could be freed. The women emerged from a jail in downtown San Antonio in November 2013 to teary hugs with family. Cassie had never held her new granddaughter, and Liz had not seen her teenage son since he was five years old.
Though celebrated by gay and lesbian activists as martyrs for a prejudiced era, their situation was still precarious. They took menial jobs and began a long wait for resolution, knowing that if they were declared officially 'innocent,' they would be entitled to hefty checks from the state for their wrongful imprisonment. If their innocence was placed back in doubt, they could return to prison. Because she got out of prison ahead of the others on parole, Anna remained on the sex offender registry. She could not be in the presence of children and faced limited work prospects. She has since been removed from the registry.
As their lawyers continued negotiating with prosecutors, a strange dichotomy emerged; Stephanie, the younger of the two victims, maintained that she'd never been molested. Her older sister—who is still officially a victim of sexual assault and therefore goes by the initials V.L. in public records, and who will not agree to interviews—never recanted. She still says it all happened. Stephanie's recantation is compromised by the fact that she has fallen out with her father, Javier; he says she is recanting to get back at him. Her sister's accusations are compromised by the fact that she and Javier are still close.
On April 22, Stephanie and V.L. are expected to take the stand and hash it all out with lawyers for the four women and prosecutors. The judge will then make a recommendation to the state's Court of Criminal Appeals about whether the women are entitled to a ruling of "actual innocence" and millions* of dollars in compensation.
If the victim has recanted, the change of heart can easily be undermined by prosecutors.
But the hearing will have larger ramifications. Since the satanic abuse scandals died down, there has been a lingering intellectual battle between lawyers, journalists, and activists who have mostly succeeded in getting these cases overturned, and a small community of opponents who say the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of defendants that actual cases of child sexual assault are being papered over. In his 2014 book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative, Ross E. Cheit, a professor of political science at Brown University, argued, "We have, over the last 20 years, discounted the word of children who might testify about sexual abuse" and have become "more worried about overreacting to child sexual abuse than we are about underreacting to it."
Cheit reserves particular vitriol for Debbie Nathan, a journalist whose reporting for the Village Voice and book, Satan's Silence, challenged the satanic cases. Nathan now helps challenge convictions of child sexual abuse with the National Center for Reason & Justice, and it was she who learned of the San Antonio women from Darrell Otto and convinced lawyers with the Innocence Project of Texas to take on their case.
Although Cheit's book did not make a big splash, his line of argument is reflected in the fact that some of those convicted in the satanic abuse cases have not been exonerated. Among them are Jesse Friedman, who pleaded guilty to molesting children with his father at a computer class in Long Island in 1988. (His best-known supporter, the documentary filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, serves on the advisory board of The Marshall Project. He is also the director and co-producer of the HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.) After Jarecki's 2003 film Capturing the Friedmans cast doubt on the allegations, prosecutors revisited the case file and reaffirmed his guilt in a disputed 2013 report.
And then there are Fran and Dan Keller, who ran a daycare in Austin, a short drive from San Antonio. The couple spent 22 years in prison after they were accused, in the words of the Austin American-Statesman, of "dismembering babies, torturing pets, desecrating corpses, videotaping orgies, and serving blood laced Kool-Aid in satanic rituals." Like the San Antonio women, the Kellers were recently freed while the case was reopened, but they have not been declared innocent. The Kellers are represented by Keith Hampton, who also is aiding Mike Ware in the effort to exonerate the San Antonio women.
Hampton and Ware, like all defense attorneys trying to exonerate defendants in these cases, are confronting the vagaries of child testimony. If the victim, now an adult, has not recanted, he or she may be relying on false memories, or the abuse may have really occurred, even if some of the most horrific stories are fictional.
If the victim has recanted, the change of heart can easily be undermined by prosecutors. In the fall of 2012, a young woman took the stand in San Antonio in efforts to exonerate her father. As a child, she had testified that he abused her, but now said it had never happened. As in the San Antonio Four case, she claimed to have been pressured by another family member with adverse motives. After her testimony, prosecutor Mary Beth Welsh told reporters, "The question turns on this witness and whether she was being truthful then or is being truthful now." A San Antonio judge found her credible, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declined to overturn the man's sentence, arguing the recantation was not enough to prove his innocence.
The testimony of Stephanie Limon and V.L. will present a microcosm of these issues of child testimony and memory, which haunt us a generation after the satanic abuse cases. There are two witnesses, alike in their unshakeable conviction, and one of them is wrong.
This story was reported by Maurice Chammah for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the US criminal justice system. You can sign-up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
*Texas pays the most of any state to the wrongfully convicted. In 2009, the state passed a law allowing $80,000 to be paid for each year of imprisonment. The San Antonio women would be collectively entitled to roughly $4.7 million.