Four Texas women who spent nearly 15 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting two young girls have finally had their criminal records expunged.
Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez, all now in their 40s, were convicted in 1998 and served out their sentences before being exonerated in 2016 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. However, the women, who came to be known as the “San Antonio 4,” still had the felony convictions on their records until state District Judge Catherine Torres-Stahl ordered them removed Monday.
“This is huge,” Vasquez told NBC News on Tuesday. She said even though she was exonerated in 2016, prior to yesterday, “technically I was still a convicted felon.”
“I was still having to be escorted in and out of the high schools,” said Vasquez, who often speaks to students about her experience being wrongfully convicted. She currently serves as director of outreach and education at the Innocence Project of Texas, the organization that helped exonerate her, Rivera, Mayhugh and Ramirez.
Elizabeth Ramirez’s nieces, then ages 7 and 9, accused the four women of assaulting them during a 1994 weekend visit with their aunt. One niece later recanted her testimony, saying family members upset about her aunt being a lesbian had told her to lie.
“Being a lesbian or a gay man in society at that particular time, it was viewed terribly considering how it is viewed now,” Vasquez said, adding that she believes the women's sexuality played a part in the ordeal. “It was a media frenzy about these four lesbians that gang raped these little girls.”
Originally, Ramirez was given a 37-year prison sentence, while Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera each got 15-year sentences after being convicted. Vasquez was paroled in 2012, and the other three women were released in 2013 after challenges were raised about expert testimony at their trials.
All four women were exonerated in November 2016 and then became eligible to collect $80,000 each in restitution from the state of Texas for every year they were wrongfully imprisoned.
Just prior to their exoneration, the San Antonio 4 were featured in a 2016 documentary film called “Southwest of Salem,” which tracked their trial in the context of the “satanic ritual abuse panic” of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
All four women had their criminal records wiped clean two years after they were exonerated. Michael Ware, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, said this final step is an important one.
“What this does is it orders [government] agencies to basically clean their database of all of that information and to either destroy records of their criminal histories or to seal the records of their criminal histories,” Ware explained. "So when they, for example, apply for a job, it will not show that they have an arrest record.”
Ware said having their records expunged could also “make a big difference” in how police officers interact with them if, for example, they get a speeding ticket or another minor traffic violation.
Both Ware and Vasquez said they hope lessons are learned from the San Antonio 4 ordeal.
“Hopefully investigators will take this as a lesson to do more critical thinking at the front end of the investigation before it starts snowballing out of control like this one did,” Ware said.
He also said he hopes it prevents people from “decid[ing] that someone is guilty early in the investigation, because they happen to be part of a marginalized part of society — in this case, the women were gay.”
“Wrongful convictions still happen today,” Vasquez lamented. “They happen more often than we think, and it can happen to anyone.”