San Antonio Four Freed After Years In Prison

Updated: At approximately 8:20 p.m. this evening, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh held hands as they exited Bexar County Detention Center and into freedom after more than a decade in prison. Their release was delayed when a clerical error on Rivera's paperwork slowed down her processing– the other two women refused to walk out without her. Paul Berry, spokesperson for the County Sheriff's Office intermittently provided updates to the anxious crowd of loved ones and supporters, who waited patiently outside the center. When the trio were officially released, they embraced family with tears and hugs, before being driven home. Attorney Mike Ware says the next steps will be getting with the District Attorney to agree on certain terms. An evidentiary hearing (in the next weeks or months) would determine those issues that don't meet consensus, he said. Ultimately, said Ware, the Court of Criminal Appeals will eventually decide "who's right about what." -M.T.

Three of the four women incarcerated in the 90s for crimes they say they did not commit were bailed from prison, pending bond today. Tears of joy and cheers erupted in Judge Mary Roman's packed Bexar County courtroom when their attorney announced they would be out on signature bond.

An emotional and joyous moment for Anna Vasquez, one of the "San Antonio Four" (released on parole last year). Photo by Mary Tuma.

Known as the “San Antonio Four”– Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez (later paroled)– were convicted in 1997 and 1998 for sexual assault by Ramirez’s two nieces. As the Current extensively reported, the case was built upon shaky evidence, flawed forensics and possible coercion. For instance, during the case a pediatrician testified scars on the victim's hymen were a result of sexual abuse. However, newly presented scientific evidence suggests this determination is faulty. The decision was aided by a new Texas law that bolsters the "junk science" argument in granting appeals.

Family, friends and supporters expressed relief and happiness immediately after the announcement. Vasquez, present in the courtroom, said she was "excited" and "overjoyed" to learn of her friends' release. Rivera's 21-year-old son, Michael, was just nine years old when his mother was sent to prison. Today, with tears in his eyes, he said he's thankful for the verdict and is anxiously awaiting the decision to be official.

Tears streamed down the face of Ramirez's mother, Gloria Herrera also in attendance, who said today "was a great day." But the struggle to free her daughter had been a slow one, rife with despair and sadness. In the beginning, she said, "we had no hope."

"It was hard this whole time, because we knew they were innocent, we knew they didn't do anything wrong," said Herrera.

Michael Rivera, the son of Cassie Rivera, anxiously awaits his mother's release from prison. Photo by Mary Tuma.

While today marks a significant victory, the process isn't completely over, says Debbie Nathan with the The National Center for Reason and Justice. Nathan's group took up the case in 2008, enlisting legal defense help from the Innocence Project of Texas three years ago. Lawyers with the Innocence Project said one of the two child victims (now an adult) recanted testimony last summer, saying her father “coerced and coached" her into making false allegations against her aunt and three friends. A trial bringing in the "junk science" argument will commence this spring. District Attorney Susan Reed vacated the conviction and sent the case to the Court of Criminal Appeals– a deadline for when the appeals court will rule is unclear.

As of now, the women are expected to be released from prison sometime before the day is over.