Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez, four working-class, self-identified Chicana lesbians from San Antonio, have fought for two decades to prove they were innocent of their 1994 conviction for rape. At 9:01 a.m. on Nov. 23, they were formally and fully exonerated by Texas’s highest criminal court, which declared the four women “have unquestionably established that they are innocent.”
In 1994, Ramirez’s two young nieces accused the women of “gang-raping” them. Ramirez, a fast food worker, often babysat the girls for her sister, and the other three women occasionally helped her with the 7- and 9-year-olds.
What really happened was the father of the girls convinced them to tell his made-up story about rape because he was trying to get custody from their mother, Ramirez’s sister. Subsequently, the women were convicted in a trial whipped up by the most outrageous kind of bigotry, filled with false accusations of them being “witches” and conducting “satanic lesbian rituals.”
The women spent from 13 to 17 years in prison until the Innocence Project of Texas took up their appeals. In 2012 one of the nieces, who is now 25 and a mother herself, told the project that she had lied, that her father made up the story and the girls went along with it. The project was also able to discredit the medical evidence, using new scientific techniques.
Now the four women can begin to rebuild their lives. On their release from prison in 2013, the four women had to register as sex offenders. They are still working on reestablishing relationships with family and children. Ramirez had given birth only three days before she was arrested in 1994. “My son was only two when I went to prison, and now he’s getting ready to go to college. I didn’t ever see him for 17 years,” Ramirez told media after the exoneration. Mayhugh had two young children.
A film about the case, “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four,” made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last April and has been aired on television.
The women’s attorneys will file the paperwork with the state of Texas for compensation: $80,000 for every year wrongfully incarcerated. Though each woman should receive over $1 million, no amount will ever make up for the lost years, the children raised without their mothers, or the racist and homophobic terror put upon each of these four women, their partners and friends, and their families.