Today in Texas, four wrongfully convicted women--known as the "San Antonio Four"--had their convictions overturned and were freed. This came about thanks to the latest in a line of innovations Texas lawmakers and the Innocence Project of Texas have devised to help the wrongfully convicted. Often thought of as a rough-and-tumble, "Hang 'Em High" state--and still leading the nation in capital punishment--Texas is surprisingly now a trendsetter for innocence reforms.
The four women exonerated today--Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhough, Anna Vasquez, and Cassandra Rivera--were caught up in the infamous line of ritualistic child sex abuse hysteria cases of the 1980s and early 1990s. Many of these cases involved allegations against day care workers, and many experts now believe that most of the convicted were innocent victims of the witch-hunt mentality prevalent in that era.
In 1994, Ramirez' young nieces, then 7 and 9 years old, accused Ramirez, her sister and two of their friends, of repeatedly raping them over a single weekend. As lesbian suspects in an era of suspicion and fear, it was easy for the authorities, and later the jury, to believe the two young girls and convict the four women.
In the intervening years, while they languished in prison, three of the four women took and passed polygraphs administered by a respected expert. And one of the two "victims" recanted, explaining that the stories of sexual abuse were false and that nothing actually happened on the weekend in question.
But as any lawyer involved in the Innocence Movement knows well, victim recantations and passed polygraphs aren't usually enough to spring an innocent person from prison. Judges and prosecutors are loath to admit mistakes, and the system strenuously pushes back against such efforts.
In this case, however, a 2013 legal innovation by Texas, the first of its kind in the nation, came to the rescue and finally helped set the record straight. The new law, known locally as the "Junk Science Writ," allows inmates to overturn their convictions and seek new trials when outdated and/or unreliable forensics were used by the prosecution to convict them.
Indeed, at the original trial of the San Antonio Four, a pediatrician testified that the victims exhibited physical signs of sexual abuse. This expert testimony provided the prosecution with much needed corroboration of the two girls' stories. Such medical testimony, however, has now been debunked by new understandings in the field of pediatrics. If the two girls had been physically examined using today's standards, the medical testimony would no longer corroborate the allegations of sexual abuse.
Such faulty forensic or medical testimony being used to convict is nothing new, and is not unique to Texas. Innocent people languishing in prison because "junk science" was used against them at trial is such a problem that it is now considered a leading cause of wrongful conviction. The problem is so widespread that it led to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences issuing a scathing report in 2009 calling for widespread reforms in the forensic sciences. In other words, the "CSI hero," as frequently depicted on television, has a long way to go before myth can become reality.
In the other 49 states without a Junk Science Writ, freeing an innocent person wrongfully convicted by faulty forensics remains an obstacle. In my home state of Ohio, for example, the Ohio Innocence Project, which I direct, has recently lost two cases in which the convictions were based on similar discredited "junk science." The decision in one of these cases is available on-line here. Our clients in these cases remain in prison despite the evidence against them now being scientifically debunked.
The Junk Science Writ that freed the San Antonio Four is not Texas' only recent innocence innovation. With its Forensics Science Commission, designed to improve the state of forensic to reduce wrongful convictions, its Arson Review Panel, which will root out cases in which innocence people have been convicted by bad arson science, its generous exoneree compensation statute, its jailing of a rogue prosecutor who caused the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton, and a District Attorney in Dallas hell-bent on freeing the innocent, Texas has become a state to emulate in this field.
Congratulations to the San Antonio Four on their long-sought freedom. And congratulations to the State of Texas and the Innocence Project of Texas for leading the way in this important area of reform.
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