Texas' highest criminal court on Wednesday exonerated four San Antonio women who spent almost 15 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, opening the door for the women to seek potentially millions of dollars in state compensation.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the so-called "San Antonio 4" — Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez — were innocent. The decision will allow the criminal records of all four women to be expunged.
The women were convicted in 1998, after two of Ramirez's nieces, ages 7 and 9, accused them of holding them by the wrists and ankles, sexually assaulting and threatening to kill them in 1994. One of the nieces later recanted, saying another family member threatened her into making the statements.
"Those defendants have won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime. That they are innocent. That they deserve to be exonerated," Judge David Newell wrote in the majority opinion. "These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated."
Mike Ware, an attorney with the Innocence Project who represented the women, said the women were "ecstatic" after learning about the ruling. The nonprofit, which investigates possible wrongful convictions, took on the case more than a decade after the women were convicted.
"It's going to be a very good Thanksgiving for all four of them," he said. "The court has issued a very well-reasoned and excellent opinion. Really a courageous opinion."
The ruling declares the women's "actual innocence" and makes them eligible to seek millions of dollars from the state under a law allowing compensation for the wrongfully imprisoned. Ware said he will ask the court to quickly issue a formal mandate, after which the women would be able to file a claim with the state that, if granted, would pay each of them $80,000 for each year spent in prison.
Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Nico LaHood said his office worked with the defense to ensure justice was done in the case.
"With today's announcement, we believe the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' decision did that," LaHood wrote in an email. "The (court's) opinion has exonerated the women, and their convictions are overturned. Today's ruling prevents any further prosecution of these cases.
"I pray peace and a new beginning for them."
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.
But the court's opinion on Wednesday relied heavily on the niece who recanted her testimony. The opinion said the two girls' testimony was so intertwined that a jury could not rely on one without the other. The court also said the "newly available evidence of innocence undermines the legally sufficient, but hard-to-believe versions of events that led to the convictions of these four women."
A concurring opinion by two other Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judges would also grant exoneration based on the challenges to the expert testimony and recantation. The opinion said "no reasonable juror would have convicted them" considering those factors and other "weak and contradictory" testimony presented at their trials.