AUSTIN, Texas (CN) - Texas' highest criminal appeals court exonerated the "San Antonio Four" on Wednesday, declaring the four lesbians innocent of charges they sexually assaulted two young girls 22 years ago.
In a majority opinion, Judge David Newell of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote that Kristie Mayhugh, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez "have unquestionably established" their innocence through new evidence.
Seven of the nine judges on the court heard the case while two abstained. The judges in the majority concluded the women are actually innocent, making them eligible for compensation by the state for their time in prison.
"Those defendants have won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime," the 45-page opinion states. "That they are innocent. That they deserve to be exonerated. These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated. This court grants them the relief they seek."
Ramirez, Rivera and Mayhugh were released from prison in 2013 after their attorneys reached an agreement with Bexar County prosecutors. Vasquez was paroled in 2012.
The four women were arrested in 1994 after two of Ramirez's nieces, ages 7 and 9 at the time, accused them of sexual assault during an alcohol and drug-fueled rampage at Ramirez's apartment.
Considered the ringleader, Ramirez was sentenced to over 37 years in state prison in 1997, while the remaining defendants were convicted in 1998 and sentenced to 15 years each.
Their supporters have argued the women were convicted based on "junk science” and a Texas law passed in 2013 allows state judges to toss verdicts based on scientific evidence that has since been debunked.
At trial, expert witness Dr. Nancy Kellogg testified that a victim had a scar on her hymen that was a result of a tear caused by physical trauma. Kellogg later said her testimony was inaccurate and is contradicted by an American Academy of Pediatrics study in 2007 that concluded hymen injuries do not leave scars, according to court filings.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said Wednesday the evidence of the women’s guilt heard at trial was "exceedingly weak," concluding it "paints a fairly inconsistent picture" of guilt.
The 45-page opinion says that different versions of how the abuse happened were given at the two trials. In one version, both victims were in the same room during the assaults, while in the other version, one victim left the room to go outside and play.
"None of the versions are consistent regarding when these two events allegedly occurred during the week in question," the ruling states. "These material conflicts are so great that it is difficult to tell which version of events the jury believed. Most importantly, many of the details of these stories are simply implausible. As Dr. [Alexandria] Doyle explained at the habeas hearing, these stories simply did not make sense. Dr. Doyle could not find one piece of evidence or one statement consistent with what one would expect in a true sexual-abuse allegation."
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood said Wednesday that he prays for "peace and a new beginning" for the four women.
"It has been a long legal process for these women and our office has worked with the defense to ensure justice was done in this case," he said in a statement. "With today's announcement we believe the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' decision did that."
An advocate for the four women, the Innocence Project of Texas gave thanks for the ruling on Thanksgiving Eve.
"Plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving season, including the full exoneration of Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh, also known as the San Antonio 4," the group posted on Facebook.
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