Four San Antonio Lesbians Wrongly Convicted of Child Abuse Have Finally Been Exonerated

Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez speak at the TCA summer tour on Aug. 1.

Amanda Edwards/Discovery/Getty Images

At least four Thanksgiving meals will be unambiguously celebratory this year: On the eve of the holiday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the Latina lesbians known as the San Antonio Four are innocent and exonerated.

In 1994, Kristie Mayhugh, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, and Anna Vasquez were accused of aggravated sexual assault on a child; by 1998, they’d been convicted of the crime. As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie explained in a 2013 Slate piece, the case was a product of “a weird, panicked time in recent American history, when the word gay or lesbian was too often conflated with pedophile.” Despite inconsistencies in the accusers’ stories, and evidence of overt and coded homophobia in the women’s trials, all four ended up behind bars. Each of the women served more than a decade in prison.

After one of the accusers recanted her accusation, and an expert whose evidence had contributed to the convictions declared that the scientific basis of her medical claims had since been debunked, the women received early releases: Vasquez in 2012 and the rest in 2013. Still, until Wednesday they still had convictions on their records and were living with the possibility that they might be sent back to prison.

In mid-October, Investigation Discovery aired Southwest of Salem, Deborah S. Esquenazi’s documentary about the case and the women’s continuing struggle for exoneration. In one of its most infuriating scenes, Judge Pat Priest, who presided over the initial trials, refused to declare the women innocent—even after a key witness said that she had lied under oath and evidence that was used against them was proved false.

When I spoke to the San Antonio Four in September, they were astonishingly optimistic and free of bitterness and anger, but their lives were effectively in limbo. “It’s hard to plan for the future,” Mayhugh told me. “I hesitate to get into a relationship, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. Am I going to go back to prison?”

On the morning of Nov. 23, 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declared, “They are innocent. And they are exonerated. This court grants them the relief they seek.” After nearly 20 years suffering the life-ruining consequences of a gross miscarriage of justice, the San Antonio Four can finally plan for the future.

Investigation Discovery will re-air Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four on Sunday, Nov. 27 at 9 a.m. EST.