How Junk Science and Anti-Lesbian Prejudice Got Four Women Sent to Prison for More Than a Decade

Cassandra Rivera, center, followed by Elizabeth Ramirez and Kristie Mayhugh are led out of the Bexar County Jail by their attorney Mike Ware.
Cassandra Rivera, center, followed by Elizabeth Ramirez and Kristie Mayhugh are led out of the Bexar County Jail by their attorney Mike Ware on Nov. 18, 2013.

Photo by AP/Eric Gay

This Sunday, in central Texas, four women and their families sat down to a big lunch together. It would have been a wholly unremarkable scene, but for one thing: Three of the women were only recently released from prison for a crime they say they didn’t commit.

Elizabeth Ramirez, 39, Cassandra Rivera, 38, Kristie Mayhugh, 40, and Anna Vasquez, 38, are the San Antonio Four. In 1994, the women, all lesbians, were accused of aggravated sexual assault on a child; by 1998, they’d been convicted of the crime and were starting their prison sentences—15 years for Rivera, Mayhugh, and Vasquez; 37 1/2 years for Ramirez, because she’d been the “ringleader.” But on Nov. 18, 2013, Ramirez, Mayhugh, and Rivera were released on bail after the testimony of an expert medical witness used to convict them was found to be faulty and a judge recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacate their conviction. Vasquez, who had been out on parole for a year already, will no longer have to meet strict parole requirements.

Finally, justice prevails in a case that, one can only hope, is a relic of a weird, panicked time in recent American history, when the word gay or lesbian was too often conflated with pedophile.

The story of the San Antonio Four unfolded like this: In the summer of 1994, Ramirez’s two nieces, the 9- and 7-year-old daughters of her older sister, stayed for a week with Ramirez and Mayhugh, her roommate. Ramirez was 20 and pregnant at the time, Mayhugh was 21. Two months later, in September 1994, one of the girls told her grandmother that she and her sister had been sexually assaulted during their stay, not only by Ramirez and Mayhugh, but also by two of their friends: Rivera, a 19-year-old mother of two, and Vasquez, also 19. According to the older of the two girls, Ramirez and her friends forced them to participate in a bizarre, tequila-fueled orgy, holding them down by their wrists and ankles and raping them with various objects before letting them shower and return to their normal lives.

“To be accused of that, saying that I was a suspect in this, it was hard for me to believe. Still it’s hard to believe, to this day, after so many years,” said Mayhugh. “I don’t how it got this far, I’m not sure I’ll ever know, but it did.” (All four of the women spoke to Slate during their Sunday lunch; they took turns passing the phone around.)

However hard it was for Mayhugh and the other women to believe the situation, it was, apparently, easy for investigators, the prosecution, and later, in 1997, two juries, despite what in hindsight should have been red-flag questions about the validity of the prosecution’s case and the investigation that preceded it.

First, there were the inconsistencies in the girls’ stories: They’d been abused on just one day during their visit, then two. They’d been held at gunpoint, then there were two guns, or no guns, or sometimes just a knife. (Notably, no gun was found in Ramirez’s home.) The younger sister was in the room, abused at the same time, or she was locked outside the door while the older sister was raped, and then brought in to be molested after her sister. The time of day the terrifying orgy was said to have occurred also changed—it was at night, in the morning, or in the afternoon, when a Full House re-run was on—and when during the weeklong visit (the second day, then the fourth and fifth days), as did where, either the bedroom or the living room, Mayhugh was there, or sometimes she wasn’t; then the girls were insistent that all four women abused them (despite the women’s work schedules showing that would have been incredibly difficult). On one point, however, they were clear: Both girls said that they’d screamed—but police never asked the neighbors, who shared an apartment wall, if they’d heard anything. The only thing that seemed to back up the girls’ account of this rank sexual abuse was the presence of what looked like a small, white scar on the hymen of the older sister, a scar that one medical expert testified—wrongly, as it turns out—was consistent with sexual abuse.

The girls also had a potential motive for making the story up: Ramirez’s defense suggested that their father, Javier Limon, had an unrequited “crush” on Ramirez and was exacting his revenge by putting the girls up to it. Ramirez testified that when she’d refused to marry the man, he vowed to hurt her and her family. She even had love letters from Limon, but they were not admitted as evidence. That the two girls had been part of a rape accusation two years earlier, and that the accusation had come while they were staying with their mother during a pitched custody battle over them, was also not heard in court, the San Antonio News-Express reported.

The four women, meanwhile, steadfastly maintained their innocence under questioning and later, in prison, after they’d rejected plea bargains. Each had taken and passed two separate polygraph tests.

There is one explanation as to why investigators, prosecutors, and juries would be so willing to believe, on what appears to be slim evidence, that the women had committed these atrocious acts: Because they are lesbians.

In 1994, the profile of the LGBTQ community was on the rise across America, but that ascent was attended by fear and panic—Mayhugh remembered gays and lesbians routinely being beaten up at gay bars and clubs. And San Antonio was no San Francisco. “San Antonio was a particularly homophobic community, even for Texas,” said Debbie Nathan, who at the time of the trials was living and working as a reporter for an alt-weekly in the city. Nathan is also a director with the National Center for Reason and Justice, a nonprofit that took up the San Antonio Four’s cause five years ago. Asked how much she thought that the San Antonio Four’s sexuality impacted their trials, Nathan responded, “I think a lot.”

Mike Ware, an attorney for the four women through the Innocence Project of Texas, agreed: “If they hadn’t just come out as openly gay, I don’t think anyone would have taken the accusations as seriously. … If the accusation had been made against four Junior Leaguers, no one would have given it a second thought.”

Rivera, like all the women, believes that her sexuality was a major part of her trial and conviction. “They judged us,” she said. “They looked at us in an awful way. It was terrible. We felt like we didn’t have chance walking in.” Asked if she’d had any hope of being found not guilty at the time, Rivera replied, “No, honestly, no, we didn’t.”

Prejudice was evident in Ramirez’s trial. (She was tried separately from the other three women.) The foreman of the jury that convicted her, a minister, told attorneys that homosexuality was a sin. Also on her jury, Ramirez said, was a “preacher’s wife” who disagreed with her “lifestyle”: “Of course they said, ‘Because of this, you’re capable of being pedophiles.’ ”

Meanwhile, prosecutor Philip Kazen, now a district judge making a run for San Antonio district attorney, subtly played up the lesbian angle: In his closing statement, he declared: “Do not go back and convict her because she’s a lesbian. It’s only important in the sense that that activity generally is consistent with the activity alleged in the indictment and that’s all.” What he meant by that is unclear from that isolated statement, however, other parts of his examination of Ramirez seemed to imply that because she was a lesbian, it was likely she was having sex with the three other women also accused. An example from the trial transcript: “Q. Did you have a gay relationship with Anna? A. No. Q. Did you have a gay relationship with Cassie? A. No. Q. Well, you were gay and they were gay—” Or that because the women were lesbians, Ramirez shouldn’t have left the girls alone with any of them: “Q. Let me put it this way: The fact of the matter is your statement says the last gay relationship you had was with Kristie, true or false? A. That’s correct. Q. You felt comfortable, you say, leaving those girls with Kristie?”

So the deck, it seems, was already stacked against them—and then there was the “junk science” testimony from a respected medical professional, Dr. Nancy Kellogg, the pediatrician who examined the girls in 1994, after they told their grandmother they’d been abused. Kellogg testified that the white scar on the older girl’s hymen was consistent with sexual abuse trauma; the age of the scar, she added, was also consistent with the time frame the girls had provided for the abuse. Her testimony became the linchpin of the prosecution’s case, destroying the defense’s contention that the abuse never occurred by supposedly showing that, someone had indeed sexually assaulted the girl at some point. In his closing statement, prosecutor Kazen said, “[T]he medical, physical evidence does not lie. You can’t make that tag—you can’t make that painful tear, that painful healing, that painful scar, up.”

But actually, it looks like you can. In 2010, a San Antonio News-Express investigative report claimed that significant research available to Kellogg at the time of the trial indicated that raised white lines, such as the ones she found on the older girl’s hymen, were actually normal variations in vaginal appearance and could not be taken as evidence of trauma. Later, in a sworn affidavit accompanying the writ filed in September 2013, Kellogg recanted her testimony and agreed that she was wrong. The women’s defense team also noted, in their writ, that the American Academy of Pediatrics published a long-term study in 2007 determining that hymeneal trauma, except in the most extreme cases, doesn’t actually leave scars.

That wasn’t all: In 2012, the younger of the two girls recanted her testimony, telling a San Antonio Express-News reporter: “I want my aunt and her friends out of prison. … Whatever it takes to get them out I’m going to do. I can’t live my life knowing that four women are sleeping in a cage because of me.” In the writ filed on behalf of Vasquez, the younger sister also went on record saying that her older sister was not telling the truth; psychological examination further corroborates her recantation.

And just like that, the two biggest pieces of evidence against the women crumbled. Ware, who has been working on the case for two years, and Keith Hampton, an attorney for Ramirez, filed petitions on their behalf in October. Part of the petition was based on a new Texas law that allows defendants to file appeals based on the misuse of “junk science”—in this case, Kellogg’s hymen evidence—in trials. Roughly a month later, the women were freed on bail.

But though Ramirez and the other women have been released, their nightmare isn’t entirely over yet. Importantly, since they’re in a “gray area,” as Ware put it, they will not have to register as sex offenders, which is one bright spot. (Paroled Vasquez is already in the sex-offender-registry system, and it may be awhile before she can be extracted.) In the mean time, they’re all in a sort of limbo. The San Antonio district attorney’s office has said that it will not retry the case if the Court of Criminal Appeals vacates the conviction, but that decision may not come for months. The next big step, Ware said, is to see all the women completely exonerated and declared innocent; this would also entitle them to funds the state pays to the wrongfully imprisoned. At this point, however, the DA isn’t willing to go along with an innocence claim, so the women’s attorneys will have to bring litigation. Ware is optimistic, but he allowed that this, too, may take some time.

A declaration of innocence will go some way in mitigating the pain of what’s happened to them, the women agreed, and they have faith that they will be exonerated. It’s important to note that none of the women are bitter or angry about what happened to them. All of them pointed to their faith in God, their networks of support and family outside of prison, and their friendships with each other as having sustained them. Ramirez expressed a sentiment that was echoed by the other women, “For all of us, we know that we didn’t commit this crime, we’re able to live in our own skin, we’re comfortable with who we are.”

But what they’ve lost is immeasurable. Ramirez spent years wracked by guilt, feeling that she was responsible for her friends’ convictions. Ramirez and Rivera have both watched their children grow up from behind bars, unable to touch them, much less hug them. Rivera met her 2-year-old granddaughter for the first time the day she was released from prison. “Now, when I see them, I just stare at them all day. They’re just so beautiful,” she said of her children and granddaughter.

“You know, 20 years ago, I was going to go into nursing and was headed in that direction before these allegations came out. It completely detoured my life. I wasn’t planning to work in a tortilla factory at 38 years old,” said Vasquez. Now she’s helping her mother pay off the mortgage on her home, a mortgage she had to take out to pay Vasquez’s legal fees. Vasquez is also hoping that she’ll be taken off the sex-offender registry as soon as possible—being a registered sex offender has made it virtually impossible for her to live a normal life: She’s not allowed to drive near schools, playgrounds, swimming pools, McDonald’s, or anywhere else where children are likely to congregate. She can’t have friends with children under the age of 17. She’s not allowed to use the Internet, which means that she can’t hold a job where a computer with Internet access is available, nor can she have a phone that’s able to connect to the Internet or with a camera.

“My parole officer was like, ‘You have to get out, you have to get back in society,’ and I’m like, ‘How? How can I do that?’ ” she said. Vasquez poured much of her frustration into advocating on behalf of the three who were still in prison, including raising funds to give them after their release; she managed to raise $700 for each of them. And money is an issue: Vasquez has a job, but the other three women are currently trying to find work; Ramirez said that this year for Christmas, because she doesn’t have any money, she’s just going to tie a bow around herself and say “Merry Christmas—because I’m the Christmas present.”

Emerging after 16 years into a world that is completely different is, they all agreed, overwhelming and difficult. (Smartphones are particularly baffling.) It has also been wondrous: During the time of their imprisonment, massive tectonic shifts took place in the landscape of gay and lesbian rights. To put it in perspective, in 1994, the year they were first accused, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell took effect. In 1996, during the investigation and trial, DOMA became law. In 1998, the year they entered prison, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence post, and left to die in Laramie, Wyo.

Since then, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed, DOMA was declared unconstitutional, Hawaii just became the 15th state to legalize gay marriage, and actress Maria Bello came out as bi in the New York Times (more or less), a story that’s attracted minimal attention, so blasé are we now about queer celebrities. “[LGBTQ culture is] everywhere now. Before it wasn’t quite there yet,” said Mayhugh. “You’ve got even, like, movie stars that are out and open, and it’s no big deal. It’s come a long way. It’s good, it’s better.”

“It’s surprising … we were so isolated from the world, we had no idea what was going on in the world,” marveled Rivera. “We come out, society is so open for us, we see it everywhere. [Being gay is] not something you have to hide anymore.”

For the three women released this November, their transfer from their prison units to the jail at Bexar County, right before their release, offered tangible evidence of just how much things have changed. Along the way, their van stopped for gas at a convenience store. There was a woman working behind the counter; her girlfriend had evidently come to visit. As the women in the prisoner transport van, women who’d been put in prison in part due to the prejudices of the juries that convicted them, watched, the couple shared a kiss. Said Mayhugh, in an awed tone, “We were like, ‘Wow!’ ”