SAN ANTONIO, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- Texas' highest court has exonerated the four San Antonio women who were in prison for almost 15 years for being convicted of sexually assaulting four girls.
The "San Antonio 4" -- Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez -- were found innocent Wednesday in a ruling.
The four women, all out lesbians at the time, were convicted in 1998. Ramirez received a 37-year prison sentence, and Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera had 15-year sentences. Vasquez was paroled in 2012, and the rest were released in 2013.
Two of Ramirez's nieces, ages 7 and 9, accused them of sexually assaulting and threatening to kill them in 1994. One niece later recanted, saying another family member coached her to make the allegations. Also, the evidence of sexual abuse used at the time is no longer accepted in courts.
"Those defendants have won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime. That they are innocent. That they deserve to be exonerated," Judge David Newell wrote in the majority opinion. "These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated."
All seven of the nine judges hearing the case said the women should get a new trial. Five determined the women are innocent.
The ruling paves the way for the women to seek state compensation for being imprisoned.
The case was profiled in a documentary called Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four that opened in September in San Antonio.
The women spent time in solitary because they refused to take part in sex offender program in their prisons.
"How are we going to admit to something that never occurred?" Mayhugh said in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News.
The women were jubilant after receiving the news.
"I wasn't expecting this and we just bought a house and all the family is coming over for Thanksgiving," Ramirez, who was sleeping when she got a call about the court's decision, told Texas Monthly. "I ran into my son's room and I probably scared him because I was just screaming and crying."
The Innocence Project of Texas, which took up the case, wrote on Facebook: "Plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving season, including the full exoneration of Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh, also known as the San Antonio 4!"
"I believe had they not been openly gay those accusations would have ended right there," Michael Ware, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas said after the ruling.
"At the root of every wrongful conviction there is an investigator and a prosecutor who took the case through the system," he said. "This case underscores the tremendous power that prosecutors have. Just because a police department brings them a case, they do not have to take the case or take the case to trial. They have a tremendous responsibility, but they also have almost zero accountability."
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood released a statement that said, "It has been a long legal process for these women and our office has worked with the defense to ensure justice was done in this case. With today's announcement, we believe the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' decision did that. The court's opinion has exonerated the women and their convictions are overturned. Today's ruling prevents any further prosecution of these cases. I pray peace and a new beginning for them."