More than 20 years after being falsely accused of sexually assaulting two young girls, the San Antonio Four have been declared innocent.
"Those defendants have won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime,” Judge David Newell of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote in a ruling issued Wednesday, Slate reports. “These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated.”
The four women, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez, and Elizabeth Ramirez, were victims of a “satanic panic” that spread throughout America in the early 1990s as well as pervasive societal homophobia. All of the women are Latina and identify as lesbian.
In 1994, Ramirez invited the other three women, who were among her closest friends, over to her apartment in San Antonio while she babysat her two nieces, age 7 and 9, on a hot July night. Four months later, police showed up at Ramirez’s door.
“I was at home in my apartment, and a detective came knocking at the door and asked to speak to me," Ramirez told San Antonio TV station KENS. “He asked if I knew Javier, Stephanie, and Vanessa, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that's my brother-in-law and my nieces.’ And he said, ‘Do you know they accused you of sexually assaulting them?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Do you know why they would do that?’ And I said, ‘No, I have no idea because it never happened.’”
The young girls claimed that Ramirez and her friends pinned them down by their wrists and ankles and raped them, threatened to kill them if they told.
During the ensuing trial, pediatrician Nancy Kellogg testified that the girls had injuries consistent with satanic rituals, which she claimed were commonly practiced among lesbians. She said the girls had scars on their bodies “caused by the penetration of the victim's sexual organ by some object.”
Kellogg would later retract her testimony, which was based on shoddy forensic science, but the damage had largely been done.
After being convicted in 1997, Ramirez received a 37-year sentence, but she was released in 2013. The other women were convicted a year later and sentenced to 15 years each. Mayhew and Rivera ended up serving 14 years, Vasquez 12. The women were freed because in 2012 one of the alleged victims recanted her earlier story, saying that she had been pressured into lying about the assault by her father.
That might have been the end of the case if not for the passage of a 2013 law in Texas allowing those who have been convicted to “challenge their rulings if there is new or different scientific evidence available,” as Rolling Stone reports. The women lobbied the court system for a new trial, and the district attorney felt there were sufficient grounds for an appeal.
The long fight for vindication was chronicled in Southwest of Salem, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016. Wednesday’s ruling was their final victory.
In addition to their records being expunged, the San Antonio Four could earn millions in reparations from the state, the Los Angeles Times reports.