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New Law Helps Release SA Four, Gives Hope to Others Wrongfully Convicted

Photo: Photo by Mary Tuma, License: N/A

Photo by Mary Tuma

L-R: Elizabeth Ramirez, Anna Vasquez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera

She continued, “It was hard this whole time, because we knew they were innocent, we knew they didn’t do anything wrong.”

After sending countless letters soliciting help with no response, the women felt all but abandoned in prison. It wasn’t until Canadian researcher and professor Darrell Otto, began investigating the women’s case in 2006 that they saw the first glimmer of hope. Otto lobbied advocacy group The National Center for Reason and Justice to take up the case—they did, enlisting legal defense assistance from the Innocence Project of Texas three years ago.

“We quickly saw it was tied to the Satanic sex abuse rituals of the ’80s and ’90s and realized that the medical evidence was flawed,” said Debbie Nathan, NCRJ director (and former Current staffer), during a press conference last week with the four women.

Nathan says the combination of the Satantic ritual abuse hysteria, minority prejudices and palpable homophobia (the four women are lesbians) heavily contributed to their trial woes.

“We’ve see how easy it is for ordinary people to be falsely accused and be denied due process—and some people are more vulnerable than others,” said Nathan. “The San Antonio Four are lesbians, and gay people are not always protected by the criminal justice system, they can be targeted. [The women] are low-income people of color, also targets for our culture’s growing anxieties and tendencies to maintain order by accusing people, punishing people and ostracizing people.”

But the most potent mechanism in securing the women’s freedom was Senate Bill 344, a recently passed Texas statute that advocates and attorneys say will usher in a new era in the Texas criminal justice system. The law allows prisoners a chance to rid their convictions and see a new trial if evidence presented by the prosecution is invalidated due to unreliable forensic techniques or “junk science.” It’s heralded as pioneer legislation not only in Texas but also in the nation. The SA Four case is the first known example of the law’s effects, making Texas—known for its tough-on-crime approach—paradoxically a leader in redemption for the wrongfully accused.

“This is the beginning of a revolution in our criminal justice system, and ultimately in the criminal justice system around the whole country,” said Jeff Blackburn, with the Innocence Project of Texas. “This is the first case and it’s going to be one of the most important cases ever […] This is a law that will ultimately get many hundreds of people out of prison, people that don’t deserve to be there.”

Blackburn continued, “This is a great moment, I hope, for a lot of people that have been convicted on the basis of flawed science. I really think they have opened the door.”

Authored by Texas Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and passed with bipartisan support during the 2013 legislative session, the law went into effect September 1. Criminal justice activists across the country are considering the “common-sense” law as a model, said Whitmire during a phone interview with the Current.

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