When hysteria leads to injustice

The US periodically goes through phases of hysteria over this or that phenomenon and the public very often falls prey to the temptation to rush to judgment to combat what is falsely perceived as an epidemic of a particular type of crime. We saw this with the large number of pedophilia charges made against day care providers a couple of decades ago and the possible associated Satanic practices.

Police and prosecutors sometimes manufactured evidence against the accused in order to get convictions and reassure the public that they were addressing the problem and this, coupled with the combination of charges of abuse of very young children and the fear people have of Satanism or homosexuality, often proved to be a powerful brew that overly swayed juries.

The release yesterday of four women known as the ‘San Antonio Four’ who had been accused of gang-raping two young children is a good example of this phenomenon.

Four women who spent more than a decade in prison after being wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting two girls were declared innocent and exonerated on Wednesday by Texas’s highest criminal court.

“These four women have unquestionably established that they are innocent of these charges,” Judge David Newell wrote in a majority opinion of the Texas court of criminal appeals. “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.”

The “San Antonio Four” were convicted of gang-raping the girls at an apartment in the city largely as a result of scientific evidence that was later discredited and retracted by the state’s expert witness. One of the girls, who were seven and nine at the time of the alleged offense in 1994, recanted her accusation in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News in 2012.

As evidence mounted that the convictions were faulty, the girls’ aunt, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh were granted bail in 2013, and Anna Vasquez was paroled in 2012. All are in their early forties. Ramirez, who was pregnant when accused, was sentenced to 37 and a half years in prison in 1997 and the other three women to 15 years in 1998. The women were subject to bail restrictions, such as requiring permission to leave the San Antonio area.

The case emerged toward the end of the “satanic panic” era, when fear swept the US that ritualistic child abuse was rampant and innocent people became ensnared in a climate likened to a modern-day witch-hunt.

Nancy Kellogg, the expert witness who examined the girls, wrote in her notes that what she supposedly saw “could be satanic-related”.

Vasquez said earlier this year that homophobia may have been a factor in the prosecution and conviction. “When we were being questioned by police, they made a point to put it out in there – that we were gay,” she said.

The worst aspects of this is that so-called forensic and other expert witnesses, who should be the people who bring impartiality and dispassionate analysis to the process, sometimes colluded with the prosecution in misleading juries. The Central Park jogger case is another instance of public pressure (egged on by people like Donald Trump) over some perceived widespread problem led to false convictions.

This is another instance where being wealthy helps a lot. Poor defendants do not have the resources to have their lawyers bring in their own experts to challenge the so-called expert testimony provided by the prosecution and thus it goes unchallenged, and this can greatly sway juries. Wealthy defendants will have their lawyers pick apart every aspect of the prosecution’s case and be able to create great doubt about guilt in the minds of juries.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    Another case, if one were needed, demonstrating why no civilised country has the death penalty. The fundamental fallibility of the justice system -- any justice system -- is lamentable. One can only hope that these women will be compensated to an extent that will allow them to live the rest of their lives in comfort without any need to depend on anyone for anything.

  2. jrkrideau says

    If you really want to scare yourself have look at the US National Research Council’s report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/228091.pdf

    The short version is : “Forensic Science” is an oxymoron, far surpassing the “Military Intelligence” joke. None of the “disciplines” have ever shown any validity; some may be valid but there is no evidence.

    There is another report on the polygraph machine. A polite tone of total incredulity comes across in every chapter. Polygraphs give snake oil a good name. The scary thing is that it, apparently, is used on thousands of US Federal employees during yearly security screenings.

    This last is very scary because if there is a McCarthyite scare going on, operators are very likely to unconsciously increase their hit rate as they “know” there are hidden traitors out there. As an early poster suggested, remember Salem.

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