Photograph courtesy of Deborah Esquenazi
Last Monday, a group of San Antonio women were released from prison, their sentences vacated, after serving fourteen years for heinous sex crimes.
Way back in 1994, Liz Ramirez, Cassie Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez were accused of committing repeated gang-rapes of two of Liz’s nieces, then ages seven and nine, after the children spent a week in Ramirez’s care. All of the women cooperated with authorities, confident it was a misunderstanding. None of them considered any plea deals that may have circumvented prison time, believing, however naively, that their proclaimed innocence would prevail.
The key evidence in the case rested not only on the claims of two very young girls, but on scientific testimony from a dubious pediatrician, Dr. Nancy Kellogg, who examined the girls and purported to find abrasions on one of their hymens that were, she asserted, a result of the assault. Dr. Kellogg also suggested in her medical memos that she believed the circumstances of the assault to be in accordance with something like—oh, I don’t know—maybe a Satanic ritual? As if singling these women out for their unnatural sexual orientations wasn’t enough, the prosecution felt like tacking on some old-fashioned pat racism for good measure. Everybody knows that a group of Latinas = brujas!
By 1997, Ramirez was behind bars, beginning a 37 1/2 year sentence for being the “ringleader.” Her friends, Rivera, Mayhugh, and Vasquez were convicted after a failed appeal attempt in 1998. They wrote to several advocacy and interest groups, none of whom felt like going to bat for them. Finally, a Canadian research scientist-cum-survivalist, Darrell Otto, caught wind of their case and brought it to the attention of the National Center for Reason and Justice, an advocacy group with a mission to discern pedophilia hysteria and false accusations from the real thing. The NCRJ, helmed by board member Debbie Nathan (whom you may recognize from her books, investigative journalism, or expert contributions to the chilling 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans), sought legal services on the local level from the Innocence Project of Texas.
Stephanie Martinez, one of the accusers who is now a twenty-five-year-old woman, recanted her testimony to attorneys at the Innocent Project in August of 2012. Also through the Innocence Project’s work, Anna Vasquez was paroled in the fall of 2012 after accepting severely limiting conditions that required her to register and live under sex offender status. The organization has since pushed a bill through the Texas ledge that allows for a writ of habeus corpus on “junk science” techniques used to falsely incriminate—the old hymen-photo trick being one of them, largely debunked in a 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics study.
The irony that a state so vehemently protective of its right to capital punishment being the same to advance an unprecedented call for scientific review of evidence in long-decided criminal cases is lost on no one.
Last Wednesday, the now-free women appeared at a press conference in downtown San Antonio, backed by their Innocence Project attorneys and Debbie Nathan from the NCRJ. They were downright radiant—posing for pictures and embracing each other with an obvious bonhomie unweathered by time spent behind bars, totally incommunicado. A moment before sitting at the table before cameras, Kristie Mayhugh performed a quick lipstick-check on Cassie Rivera’s scarlet pout.
When each of the women went around the table sharing their thank yous, Vasquez, arguably the most heroically composed of the group, choked back tears acknowledging Otto, the researcher who first took notice of their case, “Without him we wouldn’t be here today.” Liz Ramirez continued by actually thanking the media in recognition that the exposure of their plight helped fast-track their release.
They also spoke of their unerring loyalty to one another—for over a decade none has done anything to undermine the unified innocence of the group. Even on Monday, the night of their release, Cassie Rivera revealed that there was a six-hour clerical delay on her release—she was cleared to go on one charge but not the other. She offered kindly to let the others leave while she waited on her paperwork, but according to Rivera, “They all refused.” Instead, they emerged hand-in-hand from the courthouse all at once.
But the fight isn’t exactly over yet. Liz Ramirez spoke movingly of their desire for total exoneration, saying “We never committed a crime; we don’t want to live that life.” The attorneys of the Innocent Project also mentioned that total exoneration—which, in Texas, comes with a financial reward from the state—is the next phase of their process, starting even as early as today. When asked about the length of time it will undoubtedly take to clear their names, Ramirez, tearing up, leaned forward and said, “I’ve been locked up sixteen years—if I have to wait my whole life for it, I will.”
Confronted by the inevitable question of who they would blame for the mishandling of justice, Kristie Mayhugh shook her head and offered, “We don’t blame anybody.” This simple assertion is, for a furious and vengeful person like myself, almost impossible to believe. Additionally, their teary-eyed appreciation of the media that saved them seems so…optimistic. As an on-again, off-again resident of nearby Austin, a supposed white-liberal mecca, we never heard much of anything about the egregious injustices of the San Antonio Four in our news outlets. Deborah Esquinazi, a supporter and filmmaker currently making a documentary about the case, admitted when she first heard about the San Antonio Four she pitched the story to KUT, the local NPR affiliate, with no success.
Eventually I buttonholed Debbie Nathan, who spent many years in Texas as a reporter, about this oversight. In her prepared remarks, Nathan noted how these women were vilified not only for their sexual orientation, but as “low-income people of color—also easy targets for our culture’s growing anxieties.” Seems to me the release of the wrongly accused San Antonio Four would have been expedited years ago with the power of wealthy, white Austin blasting the cause. (More over, I was living in Arkansas at the time, and can tell you firsthand how fast Damien Echols stepped out of prison after Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp came to town.) Love for the gays, sure, we’ve got that covered, but, when it comes back to the issue of race, “Who would care about poor people of color if you live in Austin?” she said. Not many of us, apparently.
Though Darrell Otto, the original facilitator of justice from the Great White North, long ago posted on his San Antonio Four advocacy website, “Four Lives Lost,” an entry titled “Journalistic Apathy.” It’s dated from March 2009, about a year after he took it upon himself to get the NCRJ involved with the women’s cause. He declares, “Coverage of this case by the Texas media was scant.” And concludes, with a disgust that presciently rivals my own, “The Texas media completely failed these four women in terms of questioning the charges brought against them. When the media have too much faith in the system, and fail to exercise a healthy level of skepticism, innocent people are convicted.”