SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Four San Antonio women imprisoned for sexually assaulting two girls in 1994 — and known as the "San Antonio 4" — said Wednesday they wanted to re-introduce themselves to their children, grandchildren and relatives, now that their convictions stand to be overturned.
Three of the four were freed Monday, after a judge agreed with their defense attorney and prosecutors that their 1998 convictions for sexual assault should not stand due to faulty expert testimony at their trials. The fourth was released last year on parole, but under strict conditions that forbade her from seeing her nieces and nephews.
The women spoke to reporters for the first time Wednesday. They credited God and faith for sustaining them through nearly two decades behind bars, and said they hoped other prisoners who believe they were wrongfully convicted took strength from their story.
"My advice to them was, 'Do not give up,'" said Anna Vasquez, describing what she told inmates before her release last year. "Do not give up and keep moving forward and stay positive."
Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera were immediately embraced Monday by family members waiting several hours outside the Bexar County Jail. A paperwork error led to a delay in Rivera's release, and Ramirez and Mayhugh wanted to wait for her to walk out together.
Mayhugh said she wanted to "just get back to normal life."
"Enjoying our family and friends, and working and enjoying life to the fullest," she said.
Behind them stood attorney Mike Ware, who has worked for two years on their case, and representatives of criminal justice advocacy groups who say the case raises important questions for authorities across Texas.
Jeff Blackburn, the Innocence Project of Texas' chief counsel, said he considered the "San Antonio 4" a landmark case in investigating convictions won thanks to different forms of faulty science. The state Innocence Project is working with the Texas Fire Marshal's office to reviewing problematic arson convictions.
"Before it's over, I think and we certainly hope that the different agencies in the state will review cases like theirs," Blackburn said.
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.
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.
But a petition filed by Ware questions that claim, and prosecutors agree that Kellogg's observations today would be identified as "non-specific," not as evidence of trauma.
Prosecutors in Bexar County have said they don't intend to retry the four women.
"She deserves and that office deserves maximum credit for embracing the science and the law in this case," Blackburn said.
The four still face a court battle to win a formal declaration that they were innocent, which would allow them to apply for compensation Texas pays to the wrongfully imprisoned.
Prosecutors don't agree with all of the arguments Ware made in his petition to the Court of Criminal Appeals. Ware said Tuesday that the San Antonio judge who allowed the four women to go free Monday must make recommendations on his remaining arguments. Those recommendations will then be sent to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which could order a hearing on Ware's claims or make a ruling on its own, Ware said.