By Kavish Harjai
In recognition of Pride month, we are highlighting stories of exonerees who were wrongfully convicted on the basis of their perceived sexual identity. These stories serve as examples of how homophobia, transphobia, and general anti-LGBTQ sentiments have been ingrained in the criminal justice system.
By showcasing these stories, we hope to inspire people to continue to fight against the injustices that plague a significant part of our society but also celebrate the LGBTQ exonerees, lawyers, community, and allies who stand up for the wrongfully convicted.
The San Antonio Four
Update: On Nov. 23, 2016, the #SanAntonioFour were exonerated and declared “actually innocent” by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Four best friends–Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez–also known at the San Antonio Four, were wrongfully convicted in 1997 and 1998 of raping Ramirez’s seven- and nine-year-old nieces during a 1994 trip to Ramirez’s San Antonio, Texas, apartment.
The two nieces testified that they were sexually assaulted by the four women at gunpoint. Medical testing indicated damage to the girls’ genitals; the expert witness on the case stated that the wounds could’ve been caused only by penetration with foreign objects. The prosecutors took this evidence, combined with prejudice sentiments that the women were lesbians, to convince the jury that they were guilty of these sexual felonies. Ramirez was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to almost 38 years in prison. The remaining three women were convicted the following year, and each sentenced to 15 years.
The women have always maintained their innocence and refused to take a plea deal.
“For a while we were just a number lost in a system, but then these wonderful people came along.” Cassandra Rivera
After evidence revealed that the medical testimony presented in court was erroneous and one of Ramirez’s nieces recanted her testimony, admitting that she had been forced by family members to deliver false testimony, the San Antonio Four’s defense attorneys filed for post-conviction relief in 2013. That year, all of the women were released. Vasquez was paroled in the summer, but faced restrictions as registered as a sex offender; several months later, the other three were released after the Innocence Project of Texas filed its petition to reverse their convictions based on Texas’ forensic science statute.
Now, for more than two years, the San Antonio Four’s case has been going through the Texas court system. They are represented by defense attorney Mike Ware, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas.
“For a while we were just a number lost in a system, but then these wonderful people came along; we have Mike Ware, who has performed miracles for us,” Rivera said during a recent trip to New York City.
It is now up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to decide the fate of the women and the decision may come out before the end of 2016.
Their case has gained significant coverage as the subject of the documentary, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four directed by Deborah Esquenazi, which was screened at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and recently won the 2016 Audience Award at OUTeast Film Festival in Canada.