SAN ANTONIO – It took six hours longer than they expected, but the remaining three of four San Antonio women imprisoned for sexually assaulting two girls in 1994 were freed Monday night.
Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera were released on their own recognizance after a judge decided to recommend that an appeals court vacate their 1998 convictions as tainted by faulty witness testimony.
The women have not been exonerated formally, but Bexar County prosecutors have said they do not intend to retry them if the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacates the convictions.
The three and their attorneys were expected to describe their next steps in their pursuit of exoneration later this week. However, prosecutors do not agree with Mike Ware, one of the attorneys for the women, that they should be declared formally innocent -- a distinction that would allow them to collect money Texas pays to the wrongfully imprisoned.
The women's release was delayed for about six hours by paperwork issues with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The three emerged from the Bexar County Jail in San Antonio shortly after 8 p.m. Monday, clasping their hands in one another's and holding them high as tearful family and friends surged toward them. Each was dressed in fresh, new clothes brought to them in advance by their families.
Rivera was introduced to her granddaughter for the first time. "I'm your grandma. I'm your grandma, baby. You're beautiful!" she said with a gasp.
They walked past reporters without comment before they climbed into a minivan. As they left, family members repeated over and over to them, "I love you. I love you."
Before the women emerged, Gloria Herrera was anxious about reuniting with her daughter, Ramirez. "I've seen her, but I haven't held her," she said.
The three were convicted with Anna Vasquez in 1998 of assaulting two of Ramirez's nieces, ages 7 and 9, in successive attacks during a week in 1994. The girls testified that the women held them by their wrists and ankles, attacked them and threatened to kill them.
Ramirez was given a 37-year prison sentence. Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera were given 15-year sentences. Vasquez was released on parole in November 2012.
Their case came to the attention of attorneys affiliated with the nonprofit Innocence Project of Texas more than a decade after the women were imprisoned. The group investigates potential wrongful conviction cases and Ware, who has worked on the case for two years, filed petitions on the women's behalf last month with the state appeals court.
They were convicted based on an expert's testimony that a vaginal injury sustained by the 9-year-old girl could have been caused by an assault. According to a petition filed by Ware, Dr. Nancy Kellogg testified that the injury in question happened around the time of the alleged assaults. But her conclusions have since been discredited by current findings on science, attorneys have said. Kellogg declined an interview request from The Associated Press last week.
Texas has passed several laws to add new safeguards for eyewitness identification, DNA testing and other issues in response to a rash of wrongful-conviction cases. Ware used one law passed this year to allow defendants to file appeals based on potential misuse of "junk science" -- something criminal justice advocates have targeted as a frequent cause of wrongful convictions.
"It's a breath of fresh air," Vasquez told reporters after Ware announced earlier Monday that they would be released. "It's an awesome feeling. It's like a dream come true."
Herrera said she and her daughter hadn't decided what they would do when Ramirez went free -- other than she knew Ramirez wanted a pizza.
"In the beginning there was no hope but this day has finally arrived," Herrera said. "I pray that this doesn't happen to anybody else."