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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

“I think we have a duty to allow people to be heard and for cases to be reviewed, certainly where there is credible information that shows faulty science was used to convict them. I’m pleased we passed the law and I think it’s just the beginning of a large number of cases in Texas,” said Whitmire.

The reason the legislation is “so dynamic,” he said, is that it requires a review. “What’s so neat about the law is that it just doesn’t leave it to the discretion the Court of Criminal Appeals, it says they shall have a hearing—so, it’s got some teeth in it, it’s got some force.”

Whitmire expressed his satisfaction with the SA Four’s release, but says they were just one of many examples brought to his attention when authoring the bill. The law could open the door for a review of hundreds of cases statewide, particularly of those involving arson, said Blackburn. Last year, Innocence Project Texas teamed up with the Texas State Fire Marshal and the (now reformed) Texas Forensic Science Commission to review arson convictions. He says the group expects to free several individuals who were falsely charged, pointing to the highly politicized and infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case.

“One wrongful conviction is too many,” said Whitmire. “I think we are going to see some best practices coming out of this legislation, some justice.”

In late October, SA Four attorneys Mike Ware and Keith Hampton filed writs of habeas corpus on behalf of the women, allowing them to be freed from detention based on inaccurate expert testimony and the introduction of previously unavailable scientific evidence—the first step to what Ware and others hope is full exoneration.

Both the attorneys and the women applauded Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed and the appellate division’s Rico Valdez, for “embracing science” and being cooperative in the process—from securing an affidavit from Kellogg to digging up information. But not every prosecutor is like Reed, who was not the DA when the San Antonio Four case went to trial, cautioned Blackburn.

“We would thoroughly investigate the claim. We wouldn’t try to put up a roadblock when sharing what we knew with the defense. We tried to be professional about it and do the right thing,” said Reed in an interview with the Current. Reed says her department has always had a process for post-conviction review. “Some [DA departments] aren’t agreeable to reexamining a material valid point, I just have a different opinion.”

While Reed granted a new trial, setting in motion the opportunity for full exoneration, the final decision rests with Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, said Ware. A timeline for the hearing is unclear.

In the meantime, the four women remain faithful they will be officially vindicated.

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