DALLAS (AP) — Three of four San Antonio women imprisoned for sexually assaulting two girls in 1994 could soon walk free after their attorney and prosecutors agreed that a key expert witness' testimony is now discredited.
Bexar County prosecutor Rico Valdez and defense attorney Mike Ware told The Associated Press on Friday that they agree the convictions of the so-called "San Antonio 4" should be vacated. A judge on Monday is scheduled to review findings of fact that will be sent to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
The women may be able to obtain a bond to allow them to walk free that day, Ware said.
Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera remain imprisoned. The fourth, Anna Vasquez, was paroled last year, but under strict conditions.
The four were accused by two of Ramirez's nieces, ages 7 and 9, of successive attacks during a week in 1994. The girls testified that the women held them by their wrists and ankles, attacked them and threatened to kill them.
Ramirez was given a 37-year prison sentence. Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera were given 15-year sentences.
More than a decade later, their case came to the attention of attorneys affiliated with the nonprofit Innocence Project of Texas, which investigates potential wrongful conviction cases and pushes for criminal justice reforms. Ware, who has worked on the case for two years, filed petitions on their behalf last month with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
They were convicted in 1998 based on an expert's testimony that the 9-year-old girl had a scar in her vaginal area caused by the tearing of her hymen — which could only have been caused by a painful attack. According to a petition filed by Ware, the expert, Dr. Nancy Kellogg, also testified that the injury in question happened around the time of the alleged assaults.
Ware's petition cites a 2007 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics that found that "torn or injured hymens do not leave scars as a matter of scientific fact." Valdez said Friday that the mark Kellogg observed "would be identified as non-specific if she were testifying today," not as evidence of trauma.
Kellogg declined an interview request.
One of the girls, who was 7 at the time, also has since recanted in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News, though she didn't specify what led her to make the allegations.
"I can't take back what I did, but if I could talk to all of them in one room, I would just say I'm sorry," said the woman in the interview published last year. "I'm sorry for ruining them."
Prosecutors don't agree with Ware that the women should be declared formally innocent — a distinction that would allow them to collect money Texas pays to the wrongfully imprisoned. But Valdez said the women should be granted new trials "at minimum."
"Realistically, given the age of the cases, given the position as far as it's been related to us that one of the witnesses is recanting, it would be impossible for us to try to seek additional convictions," Valdez said. "And I'm not sure, based on what I know at this point, that that would be in the interest of justice anyway."
Ware said Monday would potentially be a "huge day" for his clients, whose case has gotten major attention from criminal justice advocates fighting the use of what they say is "junk science."
Texas has passed several laws to add new safeguards for eyewitness identification, DNA testing and other issues in response to a rash of wrongful-conviction cases. Ware used one law passed this year to allow defendants to file appeals based on potential misuse of "junk science."
"It's not the end of the case," he said. "We have a ways to go in the case. It will be a huge day for all four women, and in particular, the three that are still incarcerated."
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