By Harvey Silverglate
Americans of a certain age will remember the day-care sex abuse hysteria that swept the nation during the 1980s and early 1990s. It began with bizarre allegations in California that children were being sexually abused and tortured by day-care workers in Satanic rituals. The hysteria resulted in a rash of trials, including the McMartin Preschool trial, several prosecutions in California and Florida, and the infamous Fells Acres/Amirault and Bernard Baran cases in Massachusetts, in both of which co-author Harvey Silverglate served as co-counsel. Over the years, new evidence has emerged that the alleged abuse was planted in the young accusers’ minds by terrified parents, unprofessional social workers and often-corrupt prosecutors. All but a few of the accused have been exonerated or had their verdicts overturned in post-conviction legal proceedings. Even the mainstream press, early cheerleaders for the witch-hunts, has finally come around to realizing the enormity of the injustice. Dorothy Rabinowitz, the leading Fourth Estate investigative columnist who showed that the prosecutorial emperor had no clothes, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 in large part for her work in exposing the fraud of these prosecutions.
Not every case involved day care centers. There were many lesser-known accusations of sexual and ritual abuse of young children that resulted in unjust convictions, many of which remain uncorrected today. Among those still in prison are Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera, who have come to be known as the “San Antonio Four.” Accused in 1994 of repeatedly raping Ramirez’s two nieces, then 7 and 9 years old, when the girls spent the week at Ramirez’s apartment, Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera are twelve years into a 15-year sentence. Ramirez was accused of being the ringleader, so she received 37 ½ years. All four of the women refused pretrial plea deals that would have greatly reduced their sentences, three have passed polygraph tests on their claims of innocence, and three have refused parole offers conditioned on an admission of guilt and completion of a “rehabilitation” course for sex offenders. (It is one of the ironies of this area of criminal law that many innocent convicts remain in prison precisely because their consciences do not allow them to engage in the ritual mea culpa demanded by parole boards before release can even be contemplated.)
Now, almost twenty years after the accusations, there are signs of progress in this case long thought to be closed. On November 2nd, Anna Vasquez was released on parole—likely because the parole board came to trust the veracity of a polygraph she submitted to them attesting to her innocence. In September, one of the accusers recanted, saying she now seems to recall a quiet, even boring, weekend with her aunt, her sister and her aunt’s friends. She has vowed to do everything in her power to help exonerate the four women still imprisoned as a result of her earlier false accusations.
The injustices of this case are glaring, and the whole sordid situation bears remarkable similarities to other now-disproven crimes.
Like numerous other cases, the girls’ stories changed each time they told them to investigators. There were two trials, one for Ramirez and one for her three friends, and both of the girls told different stories at each trial. One of the girls said she had two guns held to her head while talking on the phone to her parents so that she wouldn’t ask them for help. At the next trial, she testified that there was only one gun. Her sister testified that there was no gun, only verbal threats, until a prosecutor suggestively asked her about weapons. A police search of Ramirez’s apartment did not find any guns, nor was there any record of her ever having owned one. Indeed, police found absolutely no physical evidence to corroborate any of the girls’ claims about weapons, nor anything else.