SAN ANTONIO, Texas – They didn’t get to watch their children grow up into young adults. They missed saying goodbye to grandparents, and in one case, a father, before those loved ones passed away.
But three women who were released from prison on Monday after spending more than a decade behind bars – for crimes they say they didn’t commit – said they relished their new-found freedom and would continue fighting for their full exoneration.
“I got to meet my son for the first time since he was 4,” said Liz Ramirez, 39, who along with the other women spoke with NBC News on Tuesday in their first interview since their release. “It was an amazing feeling, being in his arms.”
Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, 40, and Cassandra Rivera, 38, along with Anna Vasquez, 38, were found guilty of molesting two girls in alleged assaults in 1994 that an expert has described as reminiscent of the Satanic ritual day care abuse cases of the 1980s and early 1990s. The women, known nationally as the “San Antonio 4,” always maintained their innocence. On Monday, after the district attorney agreed the group was entitled to a new trial on the grounds that recent scientific advances undermined testimony pivotal to their convictions, Ramirez, Mayhugh and Rivera were released on bond. Vasquez was paroled last year.
“I couldn’t sleep last night. I couldn’t believe I was here,” said Rivera, a mother of two who met her granddaughter for the first time Monday night. Rivera said she found herself staring at her 20-something son and daughter, who were just 9 and 8 years old when she first went to prison nearly 14 years ago. “I can’t believe they’re with me,” she said.
John Brecher / NBC News
Cassandra Rivera, center, relaxes with her mother and brother on Nov. 19 in San Antonio, Texas, one day after being released from prison.
Other moments have been more bittersweet. Ramirez said her mother told her about her dad’s final moments three years ago when he died at age 84. Ramirez had been on the phone with him from prison, and told him she and the others wouldn’t give up their bid for exoneration.
“My mom told me that a tear came out of his eye, and I said, ‘I love you, daddy’ and he took his last breath,” she said. “I do want to go see his grave and I want to just tell him, ‘Daddy we didn’t give up and that we’re all home.'”
What sent the women to prison – Ramirez received a 37.5-year sentence and the others each got 15 years – were allegations of abuse leveled by Ramirez’s two young nieces, then 7 and 9 years old. The girls accused the four friends of sexually assaulting them twice in late July 1994 while they were visiting Ramirez at her apartment.
The women’s lawyer, Michael Ware, said the trial transcripts showed inconsistencies in the testimony given by the girls. But the crucial witness was a doctor who testified that the older girl’s hymen bore a scar that could only have come from abuse around the time of the alleged attacks, Ware said.
That finding was debunked on Monday, when the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney's office and Ware said that scientific advances undermined the doctor’s testimony, leading to the three women’s release from prison. The women now await a decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on whether to grant them a new trial. If that happens, the district attorney will decline to prosecute them, and their convictions would be overturned, said Rico Valdez, the chief assistant criminal attorney who oversees the office's post-conviction review.
The new scientific information was allowed to be presented under a "junk science" law passed in Texas earlier this year that gives defendants the chance to submit findings that may cast doubt on their conviction.
The agreement between the attorneys was a huge breakthrough for the women, who had felt they were railroaded at trial, partly because they are lesbians.
During their time in prison, they had sent letter after letter to innocence groups and anyone who they thought could help them win exoneration. Along the way, they received many rejection letters and had many false starts.
The women, who weren’t incarcerated in the same facilities, described having to fend for themselves in prison (Vasquez and Ramirez were at the same correctional center for a short time).
Ramirez, the first to go to prison nearly 17 years ago, said she had never been in trouble in her life and was at first scared behind bars. Other inmates knew that she had been convicted of molesting girls and threatened to hurt her. But one reached out. “She took me under her wing and protected me and she kind of schooled me, as they say, about prison and told me, ‘you go do your time, this is how you go do it,'” she said.
Vasquez and Rivera, who entered prison three years after Ramirez, said a woman in their initial unit wanted to jump them until she heard their side of the story: they told her they were falsely accused.
The group ended up doing the same with other inmates, but some still called them child molesters, Rivera said. “I still walked with my head held high because I knew I was innocent. We were innocent,” she said. “We know what happened, and the truth is going to eventually come out.”
The women could have avoided prison. Plea deals were offered, but they refused to accept them on the grounds that they were innocent. Rivera, Mayhugh and Vasquez could have left prison earlier, too, if they agreed to participate in a sex offender treatment program, which they all rejected.
“It was difficult to accept to be put in that same category as … real sex offenders,” said Vasquez, who couldn’t drive near places where children gather – like McDonald’s or church – under restrictions imposed after being paroled one year ago (those were lifted Tuesday morning).
Their imprisonment didn’t just take a toll on the women, their families endured hardship, too.
John Brecher / NBC News
Cassandra Rivera hugs her son Michael on Nov. 19, his 22nd birthday and her first full day out of prison in nearly 14 years. "I made it in time for your birthday," she told him Monday just after her release.
Ramirez is re-connecting with her son, now 18, who grew up with his dad. She said he didn't want to expose him to prison, so her son didn't visit her there.
“Sometimes as a mother you have to give a sacrifice just so that he won't have to go through what we’ve been through over all the years," she said through tears.
But mother and son are swiftly making up for lost time. They had their first interaction on Monday night over pizza for dinner. Ramirez said she tried to make him feel comfortable, but they were both a little nervous.
"He didn’t know how to be around me or even know what to say. It was kind of hard," she said. "But it’s okay, just kind of take it one step at a time."
The women started to make progress getting their story heard in 2008 when a Canadian fish biologist took interest in their case. He then convinced the National Center for Reason and Justice, a watchdog group dedicated to identifying false allegations of harm to children, to get involved. Next was the Innocence Project of Texas and Ware, a former member of the Conviction Integrity Unit in Dallas.
About two years ago, the alleged younger victim, Stephanie Martinez, 26, began to question if the attacks really happened. She eventually recanted her story to the media.
Martinez said she came to realize: “My aunt never hurt us. She was a mom to us,” she said late Monday as she waited in her car for the group to emerge from jail. “It didn’t happen.” She recalled that week in 1994 with her “Tia Lisa” and her three friends: Liz making her and her sister a great breakfast, going swimming and playing with neighbor kids.
“I want to apologize to them. It's hard,” she said, breaking down into tears. “I’m sorry for everything. I should have just spoken out a long time ago when I was a kid.”
Martinez said she would help however she could with the group’s bid to get a full exoneration and hopes she can still have a relationship with her aunt. “If she would want to have one with me after everything,” she said. “I want her to be a part of my children’s life just how she was a part of mine.”
Martinez’s older sister maintains the attack still happened. The four women said they don’t blame the girls and applauded Martinez for coming forward.
“I believe it was a brave thing for her to do. I’m very, very proud of her,” Rivera said.
Ramirez said she would accept her niece with open arms, “because that’s what love does. It’s unconditional.”
The women, who couldn’t have contact with each other in prison, enjoyed re-connecting since their release. They considered themselves family nearly 20 years ago – and that hasn't changed.
“The comfort was still there,” Rivera said. “It’s falling right back into place, because we’re family.”
The next part of their journey will be pursuit of “actual innocence,” which is possible under Texas state law, though Ware said winning such a declaration was extremely rare. But the women said there is no stopping them.
“We want actual innocence because that’s what we are,” said Mayhugh, who spent nearly 14 years in prison. “We’re actually innocent.”
First published November 25 2013, 12:46 PM