- Aggravated Assault of a Child
- 15 Years
[Note: Cassandra is one of four wrongfully convicted women commonly referred to as “The San Antonio Four.” The other exonerees in this case are Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez.]
In the fall of 1994, Elizabeth Ramirez and her three friends Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh were accused of sexual assault of Elizabeth Ramirez’s two young nieces. Prior to the accusation, Elizabeth had rejected the advances of the children’s father Javier Limon. All four of the women were out as lesbians, a fact that colored the investigation into the accusations and case against them. The women cooperated with authorities and vehemently denied that any abuse had taken place.
The allegations came in the wake of more than a decade of national hysteria over claims of satanic ritual abuse of children. The phenomena, known as the Satanic Panic, resulted in numerous wrongful convictions for crimes that involved unsubstantiated ritual abuse.
Arrest & Trial
In March 1995, all four women were indicted on charges of aggravated assault of a child.
They rejected offers to plead guilty for reduced sentences and went to trial. Ramirez, went to trial by herself in Bexar County Criminal District Court in February 1997. 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, Vasquez, Mayhugh and Rivera were tried together in Bexar County Criminal District Court. On February 14, 1998, all three women were convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child. Each was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
At the trial, 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.
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 2010, The Center on Wrongful Convictions became aware of the case and contacted the Innocence Project of Texas. IPTX accepted the case and began a complete reinvestigation. Also in 2010, the younger victim recanted her trial testimony. She stated that she and her sister had made the false claims after being pressured by their father, Javier Limon.
Anna Vasquez was released on parole in 2012 while the others remained in prison and IPTX worked to secure their release. As part of the investigation, and with the cooperation of the Bexar County District Attorney’s office, IPTX obtained copies of the original photographs taken of the girls during their 1994 sexual assault examinations by Dr. Kellogg in 1994. An independent expert examined the photographs and concluded that there was no physical evidence of any trauma. Confronted with the 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.
IPTX filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the four women that included the recantation by one of the girls, the findings about Dr. Kellogg’s inaccurate testimony and results psychological examinations of all four women and the girl who recanted her testimony. 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.
Filmmaker Deb Esquenazi of Austin began filming a real-time documentary of the investigation and court proceedings. The film, titled “Southwest of Salem,” was released in April 2016.
In April 2015, the judge who presided over the second trial in 1998 held an evidentiary hearing on the issue of actual innocence. 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.
Systemic Failures Have Wrongly
Imprisoned Thousands of
The Generosity of Their Fellow Citizens Can Provide Them
The Freedom They Deserve.