'San Antonio Four' exonerated 22 years after sexual assault claim

In 1994, Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez were arrested on charges of sexually assaulting two minors. The minors were Ramirez's nieces, then 7 and 9, who had been spending the week with their aunt. They claimed their aunt and her three friends had sexually assaulted twice them during an alcohol- and drug-fueled rampage.

The allegations were heinous. It did not make things easier that the four women were lesbians. Despite the fact that the alleged victims had changed their stories several times, the "San Antonio Four" were convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child. Their sentences ranged from 15 years in prison to over 37 years for Ramirez, who was considered "the ringleader."

During the trial, the four women testified about how shocked they were. How could the little accuse them of such horrible crimes? And how could anyone believe them?

Indeed, as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently found, the evidence against the women was "exceedingly weak." The children's stories changed with time and reflection and, while it is true that some variation in the stories could be the result of trauma, the prosecution seems to have dismissed any possibility that the allegations were false.

Yet the girls' stories were inconsistent and implausible, the Court found. "These material conflicts are so great that it is difficult to tell which version of events the jury believed."

Moreover, the evidence the state had presented to back up the children's stories was demonstrably unreliable -- "junk science" that has since been debunked.

Those facts added up to a full exoneration. According to the appellate ruling, the four women "have unquestionably established" their innocence.

"Those defendants have won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime," reads the opinion. "These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated. This court grants them the relief they seek."

In Nashville and across the U.S., the laws and penalties for sex-based offenses are harsh. Those accused of committing sex crimes --especially against children -- are given very little consideration by the system, by juries, or by the public. Although this case did not take place in Tennessee, we wanted to discuss it because it gives us a concrete example of how it's possible for someone to be wrongfully convicted, and thus how crucial it is to present an aggressive defense.

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