In 1994, four friends, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez, were accused and convicted of sexual assault. The “San Antonio Four” allegedly assaulted two of Ramirez’s nieces (then ages 7 and 9) in Ramirez’s apartment in an attack driven by alcohol and drug consumption.
In 1997 Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to 37.5 years in prison. The other three friends were convicted and began serving their 15 year sentences in 2000. Vasquez was released on parole last year with severe restrictions, including not being allowed to use the internet or interact with minors. After spending more than a decade in prison, Ramirez, Rivera, and Mayhugh were granted bail today by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
The attorney spear-heading the release of the “San Antonio Four,” Mike Ware, who works with the Innocence Project of Texas, was able to use the new Texas state law, which was passed this year by the Texas Legislature and went into effect in September, to challenge the forensic evidence used in the trial. The law is a part of a nation-wide effort to give convicted criminals the ability to challenge the scientific evidence that was used against them at trial. Although the Rules of Procedure have always allowed a convicted criminal to challenge their conviction based on new evidence, the standard is very difficult to meet and judges have not generally considered evolving scientific standards as grounds to review convictions. Therefore, the new Texas law specifically provides that a person who was convicted of a crime can bring a new appeal by claiming that the forensic evidence used in a past trial is now contradicted by new science.
At the trials of the “San Antonio Four,” the prosecution relied on forensic evidence offered by Dr. Nancy Kellogg. Dr. Kellogg testified that a scar on the hymen of one of the girls showed that the girl had suffered physical trauma and the injury likely occurred around the time of the alleged attack. A 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics study concluded that hymen injuries do not leave scars. Dr. Kellogg has affirmed that her testimony was inaccurate and, today, the injury “would be identified as non-specific.”
In addition to the forensic evidence offered by Dr. Kellogg, Ramirez’s nieces claimed that they were attacked by the four friends, and the elder testified at trial. But last year the younger niece, Stephanie, now 25 years old, recanted her statement. In a phone interview, Stephanie declared that “[w]hatever 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.” There is also a lot of speculation concerning the fact that the four women are homosexual and therefore may have been victims of anti-gay/lesbian views, which were likely prevalent in Bexar County in the mid-ninties.
Each of the four women have undergone psychological evaluations that do not suggest that they are potential sex offenders and have passed polygraph tests.
With this new law, Texas is at the forefront of the national campaign to enact reforms for convictions based on faulty scientific evidence. There has been significant pressure on the Texas government to enact such reforms because Texas, known for being tough on crime, is the national leader for the number of prisoners set free by DNA testing. Over the past 25 years, 117 people have been freed, including the law’s namesake Michael Morton. Morton was convicted of beating his wife to death in 1987. After serving 25 years in prison, DNA evidence proved that Morton was innocent, and he was released in 2011.
The Texas “junk science” law, also known as the Michael Morton Act, is an important and positive step forward for the criminal justice system in Texas. As Senator John Whitmore, a Houston Democrat and author of the law, pointed out, “[i]f we possibly have a wrongfully convicted person in prison based on faulty science, we have a duty to review that.” The law shows that the community is growing more aware of the limitations of science and the huge and dangerous impact that science has when it is misused in legal proceedings. The Michael Morton Act has already triggered a number of appeals. While science should certainly not be eliminated from the courtroom, hopefully, the stories of those wrongfully convicted by faulty science will prompt judges and lawyers to proceed cautiously with new scientific evidence in the future.