Judge to Recommend Whether to Exonerate “San Antonio Four” of Sexual Assault Convictions
A San Antonio, Texas judge is considering what he will recommend to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after hearing testimony that four women convicted of sexually abusing two young girls in 1994 should be exonerated. The women, who are known to their supporters and in the media as the “San Antonio Four,” have maintained their innocence since they were convicted and sent to prison in 1997.
On November 11, 2013, three of the women were granted personal recognizance bonds after a court recommended that their convictions be reversed; they had served 15 years in prison. Visiting Senior Judge Pat Priest will determine whether all four should be formally exonerated; the recommendation to reexamine their convictions came in a state habeas proceeding after the prosecution admitted that expert testimony used at trial was scientifically flawed. In addition to that admission, one of the victims recanted her story.
Elizabeth Ramirez, 40, was sentenced to 37½ years in prison after being convicted of sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child for allegedly sexually abusing her two nieces, who were 7 and 9 years old at the time. Also charged in the case were Ramirez’s roommate, Kristie Mayhugh, 42, and friends Cassandra Rivera, 40, and Anna Vasquez, 39, who were convicted in a joint trial in 1998. Previously, Vasquez had been released on parole.
At an April 22, 2015 hearing, Judge Priest listened as the mother of one of the alleged victims – Stephanie Limon Martinez, now 25 – told of a conversation she had with her daughter in the fall of 2012.
“She goes, ‘I don’t remember anything bad happening to us,’” Rosemary Camarillo said on the witness stand.
“You’re her mother. Did you believe her when she said she doesn’t remember anything bad happening?” asked attorney Mike Ware, who is representing the San Antonio Four.
“Yes, I believe her,” Camarillo responded.
Earlier in the hearing, Ramirez had again denied the allegations.
“Did you sexually assault Stephanie?” Ware asked.
“No sir,” she testified. She also denied sexually assaulting her other niece, Vanessa Ramirez.
The girls had originally accused the four women of holding them down, sexually assaulting them with various objects and threatening them with a gun while they stayed with their aunt for a week in 1994 when their father was busy with work. There were wild accusations at the time of Satanism, and supporters have said homophobia also played a role; Rivera and Vasquez had revealed themselves as lesbians to their families and were dating.
Vanessa Ramirez, now 27, still maintains the abuse took place, but Martinez had earlier confessed to making false accusations, telling San Antonio Express-News reporter Michelle Mondo in August 2012, “I want my aunt and her friends out of prison. Whatever it takes to get them out I’m going to do. I can’t live my life knowing that four women are sleeping in a cage because of me.”
In a March 19, 2015 article published in the Texas Tribune, Maurice Chammah with The Marshall Project wrote that the then-7-year-old Martinez was pressured by her father, Javier Limon, to falsely accuse her aunt. “I was threatened,” Martinez 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.”
Family members said Limon wanted revenge because Ramirez had rejected his romantic advances, a contention Limon has vigorously denied. Chammah reported that Limon said his daughters came to him unsolicited about the abuse and that he did what any good father would do: he went to the authorities.
The release of Ramirez, Mayhugh and Rivera from prison followed the revelation that evidence presented at trial by the state’s key medical witness was flawed. Dr. Nancy Kellogg had testified that scarring she discovered on one of the girl’s hymens indicated sexual abuse, which has since been debunked by the scientific community.
After their release, the San Antonio Four have made an effort to reconnect with each other and share their lives. Ramirez said the topics of their conversations focus more on day-to-day living than on their pending case.
“Us all knowing that nothing ever happened, there’s nothing really to discuss about it,” she stated. “We just try to support each other, stay by each other’s side.”
Ramirez said she has never held a grudge, either against the girls who accused them of sexual abuse or the jurors who convicted them. Prior to the hearing before Judge Priest, she expressed hope that the truth would finally be told.
“I hope this will open doors to a lot of women who are incarcerated for a long period of time,” she said. “If this could help someone – if we could be their voice – they will have that hope and that chance, I pray that this will be the opportunity that it will.”
There are no deadlines for Judge Priest to make his recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, or for the appellate court to rule on the women’s petition to have their convictions overturned.
Sources: San Antonio Express-News, Associated Press, www.texastribune.org, www.expressnews.com, www.ksat.com, www.mysanantonio.com