Anna Vasquez, one of four San Antonio women seeking to clear their names of a 1998 sexual assault conviction, will be released on parole Friday after spending 12 years in prison.
The parole comes just as advocates and both defense and prosecution lawyers are revisiting Vasquez's original conviction. Advocates for the four women say that they are innocent of the sexual assault, and that their convictions were based on false testimony and questionable medical evidence. Prosecutors in Bexar County have said they are conducting an independent investigation into the convictions.
In 1994, Vasquez — along with Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Elizabeth Ramirez — was accused of molesting Ramirez’s two nieces, age 7 and 9. Ramirez, convicted in a separate trial as the ring leader in the assault, was sentenced to 37.5 years. The other three women were each sentenced to 15 years. Prosecutors in Bexar County repeatedly referenced the women's homosexuality during the trial and told jurors that the girls were held by their wrists and ankles and repeatedly raped with various objects.
Since 2006, when a Canadian professor named Darrell Otto began researching the case and set up a website to publicize it, advocates for the women have urged lawyers to take the case, arguing that the two girls were not molested and that the testimony of a doctor who examined them was questionable. In 2010, the San Antonio Express-News published an in-depth report that raised questions about the convictions. The case was reopened and attorneys at the Innocence Project of Texas have agreed to represent the women.
In August, one of the girls who had accused the women recanted her story. Prosecutors at the Bexar County District Attorney’s office, which secured the convictions, said they are re-examining the evidence.
"We're conducting our own independent investigation,” said appellate chief Rico Valdez. “We're in the process of trying to contact all of the original witnesses, to see what's really going on."
Dr. Nancy Kellogg, the expert who examined the girls and testified against the women, has refused to comment.
"It just so happened that Anna was going through this parole review when this all came into play,” said her cousin, Rose Vasquez. For years, Anna Vasquez was denied parole, because she maintained her claims of innocence and would frequently skip classes for sex offenders at the Hobby Unit, where she was housed.
“She had been very cooperative,” said Mike Ware, an attorney with the Innocence Project of Texas who represents all four women. “But when it came down to standing in front of the class talking about the offense, she just couldn't do it.”
Ware knew that several of the women had passed polygraph exams before they were convicted. He could only afford testing for one of the women, and he selected Ramirez, because she was the alleged ringleader.
Vasquez was also at the Hobby Unit at the time of the polygraph, and the examiner agreed to interview both women. Ware said the positive results of the exam were likely a factor in the parole decision of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Once she is released, Vasquez will have to register as a sex offender for up to two years. Though parolees often have trouble finding work, Rose Vasquez said that her cousin learned to work with leather while in prison and may try to set up a business selling leather products.
Elizabeth Ramirez, who will be in prison until 2034, said she hoped that Vasquez’s parole would help in the effort to exonerate all four women.
"We're hoping that her being out, being able to be the voice for the girls, will be able to move the case along," Rose Vasquez said. "They're still trying to fight for their innocence."
Ware said Vasquez's parole was a symbolic step forward.
"It's a far thing from an exoneration, and exonerations for all four women is our objective,” Ware said.