SAN ANTONIO -- Four San Antonio women imprisoned for sexually assaulting two girls in 1994 have achieved their first aim: freedom.
Their next step is to fight for exoneration, and that is what their attorneys intend to pursue before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera were released Monday night on their own recognizance. That was after a judge decided to recommend that an appeals court vacate their 1998 convictions as tainted by faulty witness testimony.
The fourth woman, Anna Vasquez, was released on parole last year.
The women haven't been exonerated formally. Bexar County prosecutors have said they don't intend to retry them if the appeals court vacates the convictions. However, they disagree with the women's attorneys that they should be declared formally innocent. Exoneration would allow them to collect money Texas pays to the wrongfully imprisoned.
The women and their attorneys were expected to describe their next steps in their pursuit of exoneration later this week. The release of Ramirez, Mayhugh and Rivera on Monday 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 members 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 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.
Their case came to the attention of attorneys affiliated with the nonprofit Innocence Project of Texas and National Center for Reason and Justice more than a decade after the women were imprisoned. The groups investigate potential wrongful conviction cases and Mike Ware, an attorney for the women who has worked on the case for two years, filed petitions on their 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."