This Thanksgiving, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez — aka the San Antonio Four — had something momentous to be grateful for. On November 18, three of them walked out of prison. Vasquez, who had been released last year, had her parole restrictions lifted.
The four friends, all lesbians, have served more than a dozen years for violent sexual acts committed on Ramirez’s nieces, then 7 and 9. All along they have maintained their innocence and turned down plea deals.
In 1994, when the alleged acts took place, the “satanic ritual abuse” panic — when allegations proliferated of strange and devilish sexual rites practiced on children, particularly in daycare — still resonated in Texas. Homosexuals were alleged to be habitual abusers. An industry of dubious specialized therapy and investigation methods had developed.
The four women were young. They had no criminal records and were working or taking college courses. Rivera and Ramirez were mothers.
The stories the nieces told were bizarre — the women were topless; they raped the girls with tampons coated with gel and white powder. A reporter later said the girls’ statements “sounded like a porn movie … a man’s version of what women do in their spare time.”
Or, more to the point, what lesbians do.
In the courtroom, the prosecutor suggested as much, and the defense attorney didn’t object.
The prosecution’s medical expert, pediatrician Nancy Kellogg, testified that marks on the older girl’s hymen indicated abuse. In her notes, the doctor also conjectured that the alleged acts might be “satanic related.”
Given the social atmosphere and the defendants’ sexuality, the jury had no trouble believing the improbable allegations.
Three of the women were sentenced to 15 years. Ramirez, the alleged “ringleader,” faced 37 and a half.
But they were innocent. No crime ever occurred.
From prison, the women wrote to every innocence project they could find, to no avail. In 2006, Darrell Otto, a scientist living in the Yukon, was researching female sex offenders online and came upon the women’s story. He dug further and became convinced they’d been railroaded. He also tried — and failed — to procure legal representation.
“I’m dying,” Vasquez told a filmmaker while still behind bars.
Then, in 2008, Otto found the National Center for Reason and Justice (on whose board I sit). By 2010, the organization — which helps people falsely accused of crimes against children and advocates for reforms in the criminal justice and child-protective systems — had brought community support and press attention to the case. Finally, the NCRJ persuaded the Innocence Project of Texas to take it on.
After reading an exposé in a local paper, one of the “victims,” by now a young woman, recanted, tearfully recounting how her father — whose repeated advances were spurned by Ramirez — coerced her into lying about the “abuse.” In a letter, she asked her aunt’s forgiveness. “I was only 7,” she wrote, “and I was scared.”
Kellogg signed an affidavit saying that, had she known then what she knows now about sexual-abuse forensics, she would not have come to the same conclusion.
In fact, she should have known then. In 1992, Kenneth Lanning, the FBI’s eminent behavioral scientist and sex-crime expert, released a report shedding serious doubt on the existence of satanic abuse. In 1994, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect concluded a five-year nationwide investigation of more than 12,000 satanic-abuse accusations, most in daycare centers. It found “not a single case where there was clear corroborating evidence.”
The trials were not until 1997 and 1998. Before Kellogg testified, her theory had been discredited as “junk science.”
This last fact is what got the SA4 out of prison. The women’s attorneys used a new Texas law allowing retrials for people falsely convicted on junk science. The DA has agreed not to retry the women, effectively dropping the charges. It’s up to a higher court to clear their names.
For now, the four are eating pizza, learning how to use smartphones and getting to know their children.
Also in Texas, and thanks to the same law, daycare proprietors Fran and Dan Keller are coming out of prison. The Kellers were among the last Americans still behind bars for convictions of “satanic abuse.”
In 1992, when they were accused, it seemed plausible to almost everyone that the Kellers had dismembered babies and animals, sawed up a passerby with a chainsaw, and flown children to Mexico for the day to be abused by soldiers — getting back in time for supper.
The Kellers served 23 years of their life sentences. They haven’t seen each other once in that time.
Charges of sexual abuse are no longer as dramatic as these. You don’t hear much about animal sacrifice, flying or white powder.
But disgruntled family members or ex-spouses still conjure up sexual abuse and pressure children to make allegations. In fact, the less spectacular the charge, the more credible it sounds.
People who work with kids may assume a child was sexually abused if she or he is acting out in school or camp. Mandated reporters such as teachers or psychologists are trained to infer sexual harm when the child might instead be severely neglected or subjected to other emotional or physical battery.
The panic about adult malevolence toward children shows no signs of waning. In fact, it has spread beyond sex. Increasingly, when a child dies accidentally, prosecutors look around for an adult to accuse of deliberately killing him or her by arson, starvation or violent shaking.
The National Registry of Exonera-tions at the University of Michigan recently reported that one in five known criminal exonerations was like the SA4’s and the Kellers’ — a case in which no crime occurred. Three-quarters of these involved child sexual abuse.
Women are far more likely than men — 53 percent of female exonerees versus 17 percent of males — to have been falsely convicted of a violent crime against a child; more than half of these are “no-crime” cases.
Such convictions often hinge on forensic evidence. They can be overturned if the forensics are proven to be junk.
There are many forms of junk science besides scarred hymens and other alleged signs of sexual assault — such as certain kinds of charring and some claimed symptoms of shaken-baby syndrome. The American Civil Liberties Union also includes findings of “future threat.” In Texas, this evaluation has been used to justify execution.
Another use of future threat — called by the less ominous, more objective-sounding name “risk of reoffense” — is to condemn a sex offender to indefinite psychiatric civil commitment after he has completed his prison term.
Vermont almost enacted civil commitment in 2005. The commissioners of health, safety and corrections recommended it; legislative council opposed it. Thankfully, the legislature took the latter advice.
But this year, the release of “high-risk” sex offender Timothy Szad renewed calls for civil commitment, and that’s likely to happen again. Gov. Peter Shumlin told Vermont Public Radio he was “willing to take a look at it.”
Civil commitment is a no-crime penalty: A person is locked up for an offense that may never occur. The policy is also based on dodgy “science” — risk assessment, which by definition is right only some of the time. As the physicist Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
It’s hard to believe there are no falsely accused people in Vermont’s prisons. A junk-science law like the one in Texas would give them a path to justice even if they’ve exhausted their appeals.
In the meantime, lawmakers should ensure that the system never intentionally incarcerates a person when no crime has been committed. Vermont should not institute civil commitment, ever.