DALLAS -- Four San Antonio women should have their convictions overturned for the alleged sexual assault of two young girls, but they should not be declared innocent, a judge ruled in a case long championed by advocates for criminal justice reform.
Texas District Judge Pat Priest's ruling Tuesday paves the way for the "San Antonio 4" to have their records cleared.
But while he said the women deserved new trials, Priest refused to declare their "actual innocence." That could prevent them from having their records expunged or asking for potentially millions of dollars in compensation that Texas gives to the wrongfully imprisoned, according to their attorney, Mike Ware.
"When you are innocent of a crime, a horrendous crime that you are accused of, you want the whole world to know that you didn't do it," Ware said Wednesday. "The best message for that is a judicial finding of actual innocence."
Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera, and Anna Vasquez were accused by two of Ramirez's nieces, ages 7 and 9 at the time, of attacking them in 1994. The girls alleged the women held them by their wrists and ankles, sexually assaulting them and threatening to kill them.
Ramirez was given a 37-year prison sentence. Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera each got 15-year sentences.
The case was taken up more than a decade later by the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit group that investigates possible wrongful convictions.
One key area of criticism was the testimony of a forensic expert, who told jurors that the 9-year-old girl had a scar in her vaginal area caused by the tearing of her hymen that could have been caused only by an attack that occurred around the time of the assaults.
A petition filed by Ware argued that testimony would not hold up under scientific scrutiny today.
One of the nieces has also recanted her story, and testified last year at a two-day hearing reviewing the convictions. The Associated Press does not identify victims in possible sexual assault cases without their consent.
Priest cited the lack of "hard scientific evidence" and the victim's recantation in saying the four women's convictions should no longer stand. But since the other niece has not recanted her testimony, Priest said the cases do not reach a standard where "no reasonable juror" could vote to convict them. Though all four deserve new trials, "their assertion of proof of actual innocence falls short of the mark," Priest wrote.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, will review Priest's findings and issue a final order on the women's convictions. It's unclear when the court will rule.
San Antonio prosecutors did not return phone messages seeking comment Tuesday. The Bexar County District Attorney's office has previously said it is unlikely to push for a new trial.