Summary Courtesy of The National Registry of Exonerations
by Maurice Possley
[Note: Anna is one of the “San Antonio Four.” The other exonerees in this case are Kristie Mayhugh, Elisabeth Ramirez and Cassandra Rivera.]
In March 1995, 20-year-old Elizabeth Ramirez and three of her friends were indicted on charges of sexually molesting Ramirez’s 7-year-old and 9-year-old nieces in San Antonio, Texas.
The girls claimed that Ramirez, 21-year-old Kristie Mayhugh, 19-year-old Cassandra Rivera and 19-year-old Anna Vasquez spent the week of July 24-31, 1994 in an orgy of molestation. The nieces said the women were topless while they held them down and inserted various objects, such as tampons coated with gel, into them. They said the women threatened them with a gun and a knife.
Before charges were filed, police learned that all four women were gay and had recently come out to their families. Vasquez and Rivera were dating at the time of the allegations.
All four women cooperated with authorities and vehemently denied they molested the girls.
The allegations came in the wake of more than a decade of national hysteria over claims of satanic ritual abuse of children. Dozens of men and women—many of whom worked in daycare centers—were targeted. Children, subjected to leading and suggestive questioning by police and social workers, told wild stories of being taken out on boats to watch babies pitched into the ocean to be devoured by sharks, or of babies being killed so adults could drink their blood.
Mayhugh, Ramirez, Vasquez and Rivera rejected prosecution offers to plead guilty for reduced sentences and went to trial. Ramirez, who was considered the ringleader, went to trial by herself in Bexar County Criminal District Court in February 1997. The older girl testified that the four women repeatedly molested them. The younger girl was not called to testify.
Dr. Nancy Kellogg, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, testified that she examined the girls and saw evidence of a healed scar on the older girl’s hymen. Kellogg testified this scar was physical evidence of sexual molestation. In her notes, Kellogg speculated that the acts were “satanic related.” Although Kellogg admitted on cross-examination that she could not tell how old the scar was or whether it was the result of an accident, Kellogg insisted the scar indicated sexual abuse.
On February 6, 1997, the jury convicted Ramirez of aggravated assault of a child and indecency with a child. She was sentenced to 37½ years in prison.
One year later, in February 1998, Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera were tried together in Bexar County Criminal District Court. In this trial, both girls testified they were sexually molested and Kellogg again testified about the physical evidence of abuse. The women denied the allegations and told the jury that they spent the week doing routine, mundane things such as shopping and going to Arby’s for lunch. They testified they were never all there at the same time.
On February 14, 1998, Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera were convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child. Each was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In both trials, prosecutors won convictions by discounting the many inconsistencies in the girls’ testimonies and argued that the inconsistencies were outweighed by the scientific testimony of the pediatrician. That theme was repeated by the appellate court in affirming the convictions on direct appeal.
In 2006, Darrell Otto, a biologist from the Yukon who was studying female sex offenders, became aware of the case of the women. He began corresponding with them, and became convinced of their innocence. In 2008, he submitted a request for assistance to the National Center for Reason and Justice, a national organization co-founded by Debbie Nathan, who wrote a book about satanic ritual abuse cases.
Nathan examined the case. In 2010, she interviewed Stephanie, the younger victim, who recanted her trial testimony. Stephanie said that she and her sister had made the false claims after being pressured by their father, Javier Limon.
Stephanie said that they were coerced by Limon (who later unsuccessfully sought to take away Stephanie’s children because of her recantation), after Ramirez rejected his romantic advances. “I was only 7,” she wrote in a letter to Ramirez, “and I was scared.”
In the ensuing two years, the Center, which helps people wrongly accused of crimes against children, raised public attention and support for the four women, who became known as the “San Antonio Four.” Nathan and the Center contacted the Innocence Project of Texas in 2010, and in 2011, lawyers for the Innocence Project of Texas accepted the case and began a complete reinvestigation. Nathan also contacted filmmaker Deb Esquenazi of Austin, Texas who began filming a real-time documentary that was released in April 2016 titled “Southwest of Salem,” in which Nathan said the prosecution of the four women represented “the last gasps of the satanic ritual abuse panic.”
Attorney Mike Ware, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, spent two years reinvestigating the case. During that time, Ware consulted with Astrid Heger, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and an expert in the evaluation of child abuse. Through the cooperation of the Bexar County District Attorney’s office, Ware obtained copies of the original photographs taken of the girls during their 1994 sexual assault examinations by Kellogg. Hager examined the photographs and concluded that there was no physical evidence of any trauma. Confronted with Heger’s findings, Kellogg signed a sworn affidavit saying that, had she known then what she subsequently learned about sexual-abuse forensics, she would not have testified that the evidence showed any physical signs that the girls had been molested. That development meant that Stephanie’s recantation was corroborated by physical evidence.
Ware and lawyer Keith Hampton filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the four women, citing two grounds for setting aside their convictions: they were actually innocent based on the new forensic analysis and Stephanie’s recantation, and that their trial had been unfair because of Kellogg’s inaccurate scientific testimony.
The petition noted that Kellogg “now affirms that her trial testimony was materially inaccurate and that if she had known then what she and others in her field know today, she would not have testified that her examination… revealed anything indicative of trauma or any… physical evidence of sexual abuse.”
The petition cited a 2007 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics that concluded that torn or injured hymens “do not leave scars as a matter of scientific fact.”
The Innocence Project of Texas had all four women take polygraph examinations and all were deemed to be truthful when they denied the allegations. They also submitted to psychological examinations that revealed that none of them possessed any characteristics or traits consistent with pedophiles or sex offenders. The expert who oversaw the examinations concluded not only that the women did not commit the crime, but they would never have committed the crime. In addition, Stephanie was psychologically evaluated by Dr. Alexandria Doyle, who determined that her recantation was truthful and reliable.
The Bexar County District Attorney’s Office agreed to relief on the basis that inaccurate scientific testimony tainted the trial, but took no position on the actual innocence claim. The women were released on bail in November 2013.
In April 2015, the judge who presided over the second trial in 1998 held a two-day evidentiary hearing on the issue of actual innocence as to all four women. In February 2016, that judge declined to recommend that the women be found actually innocent and the women appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
On November 23, 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writs and vacated the convictions of the four women, ruling in favor of them on their actual innocence claim and the faulty science claim.
The court said that Stephanie “not only established that the offenses did not occur through her credible recantation testimony, she explained in detail how her father forced her and her sister to make the false allegations to the police in the first place.”
Moreover, the court said, “Dr. Kellogg has retracted her testimony about the physical indicators of past trauma. She now agrees with the defense that there are no definitive signs of sexual abuse, and she has acknowledged that her testimony at trial was wrong.
“All parties and courts, including this one, agree that all four (defendants) are entitled to have their convictions and sentences vacated because of the introduction of what is now known to be scientifically invalid or inaccurate evidence.”
The court declared that the four women were factually innocent and that “they are exonerated.” All four were awarded compensation by the state of Texas. All four were awarded compensation by the state of Texas. Mayhugh received $1,073,000 and a monthly annuity of $5,100, Ramirez received $1,346,000 and a monthly annuity of $6,300, Rivera received $1,080,000 and a monthly annuity of $5,000, and Vasquez received $1,104,000 and a monthly annuity of $5,100.