How Fort Worth Fights for the Innocent

Inside the Fort Worth organization hoping to put an end to wrongful convictions throughout Texas.

by Linda Blackwell Simmons

It began on a hot summer night in 1994 in San Antonio. Three young women were visiting a fourth friend, Elizabeth Ramirez, in her apartment. Ramirez’s two nieces were also visiting — sisters, ages 7 and 9. Several weeks after that fateful night, the nieces falsely accused all four of sexual abuse and rape, even though it remains questionable if all four women were ever even in the apartment at the same time. That evening resulted in a 22-year nightmare for the women, now known as “The San Antonio Four” — Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez. The reason for the nieces’ false accusations is still unclear. One theory is that Ramirez had refused sexual advances from their father, causing him to plant ideas in the young girls’ heads. No DNA evidence was present, and the girls’ stories, and their retelling of that night, were inconsistent. Prosecutors argued that children often forget exact details, and that — along with a doctor’s “expert” testimony affirming that one of the girls had genital scars — was enough to convince a jury to convict. All four of the young women had recently come out as gay, and they were easy targets for false allegations. Ramirez was sentenced to 37 and a half years, and the others to 15 years each for sexual assault and indecency.

The documentary "Southwest of Salem" tells the story of the San Antonio Four.

Decades went by, and for these four women, no one, outside of family and friends, believed their cries of innocence until years later, two individuals read about their case. Darrell Otto, a Canadian professor, was doing research on female sex offenders and knew that rarely do females engage in sexual abuse. The story didn’t sound right to him. He, along with Debbie Nathan, a journalist with Texas roots, began studying their case. The genital scar theory, an example of “junk” science, had been disproven in 2007. In 2011 their case was brought to the attention of Innocence Texas (ITX), which fought fervently to have them exonerated — and, on Nov. 23, 2016, all were.

The nieces are now in their 20s. One niece has apologized. Another has not, nor has the doctor who testified at the trial, nor has the prosecutor. Is she bitter? No, she realizes to be bitter about the past would ruin her future. “Shortly after my exoneration, I felt lost. Being free was all I had fought for, for 22 years of my life, and although I was over the moon, I seemed to find myself without a sense of purpose,” said Vasquez. “So earlier this year, when ITX offered me a job, I jumped at the chance. I regained my purpose and my self-worth. I always said that I would continue to help with this amazing organization, somehow someway, but thought only as a volunteer. I was honored that they even considered me for the position. I believe I can be a huge asset in communicating with people still on the inside because I know firsthand what they are going through — the hurt, the disappointment, the sense of defeat,” Vasquez says.

“Southwest of Salem,” an award-winning documentary about the unraveling of these four lives and the efforts of ITX to attain justice for them, was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in April 2016. It went on to win a Peabody award in 2016, a GLAAD award (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) for outstanding documentary in May of this year, and received a nomination for an Emmy Award.

A recent study by the National Registry of Exonerations indicates over 1,700 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989. Of these, about 700, or 40 percent, were convicted of murder, and of these, about 115 were sentenced to death. Most of these exonerations have been due to DNA testing done after the convictions, utilizing new technology on sometimes decades-old evidence. The Innocence Project (IP), founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, was created for those wrongly convicted. The nonprofit celebrated 25 years this year. 

Texas’ branch of the organization, ITX, is based in downtown Fort Worth, and Mike Ware, a criminal defense attorney, is executive director.

Ware was instrumental in obtaining the exonerations for the San Antonio Four. “They were young, they were gay, and they didn’t have a lot of money. They were vulnerable targets for the police and prosecutors, who would not have pursued such an investigation against members of a more mainstream society,” he says. He believes all of these factors contributed to their wrongful convictions.

Ware is a “hometown” boy, who grew up on the Southside and attended Paschal High School. His career is distinguished. After graduating with honors from the University of Texas with a degree in philosophy, he earned his law degree from the University of Houston Law School in 1983, where he was research editor for the Houston Law Review. In 1984 he began private practice, specializing in criminal defense. From 2007–2011, he was the Special Fields Bureau Chief for the Dallas County District Attorney’s office, where he headed the conviction integrity unit, the first of its kind in the country. In April 2009, he was featured in “Dallas DNA,” a six-week television series on Investigation Discovery (ID). In 2011, Ware opened a private practice in Fort Worth, and in 2014 he received the “Percy Foreman” Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year award. His honors didn’t stop there. In July of this year, ITX received the 2017 State Bar of Texas’ Warren Burnett Award for its contributions toward improving the quality of criminal legal representation, particularly on behalf of indigent defendants. In the formal announcement addressed to Ware, the State Bar of Texas termed ITX’s contributions as “truly exceptional.”

Mike Ware appears in court on behalf of the San Antonio Four.

Ware minces no words about the number of other innocent people behind bars today. His passion and tenacity in helping those wrongly convicted is compelling.
It’s become common to see news stories about an individual who has been exonerated, sometimes after spending decades in prison, and some who have even been exonerated from death row. “Mistaken witness identification appears to be the most frequent reason. Detectives want to solve, and prosecutors want to win, sometimes at a high cost,” Ware says. “Perhaps when detectives are displaying pictures, they keep their finger on a particular one a second longer than the others. Or they display body language to the victim or eyewitness during a lineup, suggesting a particular person to pick. Sometimes the picture the detective wants the witness to pick is the wrong person. Poverty is also a factor. It is rare that a wealthy innocent individual is wrongfully convicted.”

As was the case with the San Antonio Four and the genital scar theory, junk science often plays a part in wrongful convictions. The analysis of a “forensic expert,” sometimes in a white coat using medical jargon, may have no real scientific basis. Sometimes, it is the “science” itself that is junk, or the science is good, but it’s improperly applied. Scientific methods such as bite mark comparisons are now seen as subjective. Judges may not understand the science, so they may allow the jury to hear false testimony offered by the prosecution.

Ware says he is often asked why a person would plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit. “Many times, innocent defendants have absolutely no faith in the ‘justness’ of the justice system. They understand the truth may not stand a chance against the efforts of the police, prosecutors, and even sometimes the judge, to convict them. They may see their attorney, many times court appointed, as not skilled enough or not having the resources to overcome the powerful institutions trying to convict them. They may accept a deal that requires them to plead guilty but limits their time in prison. This is unfortunate because convicting the wrong person does nothing to protect the public’s safety or serve justice.”

DNA exonerations have shown coerced false confessions to be another leading cause of wrongful convictions, particularly for the young and for those who may be mentally unstable. Most of the time, the videotape will support the police version of the interrogation, so it’s hard to understand why the police have historically mounted organized efforts opposing such a requirement. Because of legislation recently pushed through by ITX, the police are now required to record interrogations in most cases.

Mike Ware has three offices overflowing with cases from the Innocence Project.

“ITX reviews about 1,000 cases annually, but ultimately takes legal action on only a small percentage. We have to be convinced that the person is innocent before we initiate litigation,” Ware says. He oversees a small staff and also utilizes the help of volunteers, all of whom strive to improve the fairness of the Texas criminal justice system. Intake and triage are a time-consuming and difficult part of the work. Weeding out those who are telling the truth from those who are not is a lengthy process. “There is a common misconception that everyone in prison claims he or she is innocent. It is my experience that most convicted inmates own up to what they did. And there are those who say they are innocent, but who are not. Sometimes there are fairly straightforward ways to corroborate their version of the facts. They may be given polygraphs. Or perhaps their story makes more sense than that of the prosecutor offered at trial. Consistency of story is another; the truth never changes,” Ware says.
It takes years from start to finish to reverse a conviction. Ware says sometimes the police and prosecutors will fight to avoid admitting a mistake. The law requires a post-conviction claim to be filed in the same court where the defendant was originally convicted. Sometimes the judge will be loath to concede that he or she presided over such a travesty of justice. The system was set up to err on the side of letting a guilty person go free to prevent convicting the innocent. It was never really set up to correct serious errors, other than procedural errors.

The San Antonio Four made their way to hell and back, but there are still many who are not “back.” Ware agrees that Texas has had more than its share of wrongful convictions, but the state has recently become a leader in criminal justice reform. Prosecutors, in order to obtain a conviction, may be willing to trust the testimony of someone they would not trust in other circumstances. “Jailhouse snitches have long been a problem. Recent legislation pushed through by the ITX now requires prosecutors to keep thorough records of all jailhouse informants they use, their testimony, their criminal history, and the benefits those informants received as a result of the information they provide. The information must be disclosed to defense lawyers if it will be used by prosecutors in a particular case,” said Ware. Others have even proposed banning the use of compensated informants altogether, especially in cases involving capital crimes.

Ware is also an adjunct professor at Texas A&M Law School. Tim Godwin is one of his third-year students. Slightly older than the other students, Godwin’s previous careers included U.S. Army, a Texas State Trooper, and also Boyd and Newark Police Departments. He brings a unique perspective to the classroom. “I take the approach of an officer looking at the case in order to send it to the district attorney for prosecution. I am not necessarily looking for guilt or innocence; I am looking to see if I would have made the same arrest, and then analyze the case from arrest to prosecution,” said Godwin.

Tim Cole (No. 4) in a lineup at the Lubbock Police Department.

Another ITX exoneration of a wrongful conviction hits close to home. Tim Cole, a Fort Worth native, had served four years in the U.S. Army and was a student at Texas Tech in 1985. On March 24 of that year, a young woman, Michele Mallin, also a student, became the fifth woman raped in four months on the Texas Tech campus. In each case, a young woman was driven outside of town at knifepoint and raped after being approached at her car. Three of the victims identified the man as a smoker, including Mallin who testified that he smoked during the ordeal. Mallin, white, chose Cole, black, out of a photo spread and also picked him out of a lineup. A jury convicted and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. He was later offered parole if he would admit guilt. He would not. He died of an asthma attack in 1999 after serving 13 years in prison. Cole’s brothers and friends had testified that he was at home that night playing cards and that, due to his asthma, he had never smoked. Another man confessed to the rape in 2007, and Mallin admitted that she had been wrong in her identification. A DNA test conducted long after Cole died confirmed that the man who confessed to the crime was the rapist. In 2010, Rick Perry, then governor of Texas, acknowledged Cole’s innocence and pardoned him posthumously. Perry came to Fort Worth and signed a pardon with Cole’s family present. A historical marker stands today honoring Cole in Mount Olivet Cemetery at Sylvania and Northeast 28th Street, and the City of Lubbock erected a 19-foot-tall statue of Tim across the street from the main entrance to Texas Tech.

Tim's mom and brothers hold a photo of him for a photo shoot with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

But, Vasquez of the San Antonio Four is one of the “lucky” ones who is still here to speak about her travesty of justice. “We want to prevent wrongful convictions, not correct them after they are made,” said Vasquez.

Vasquez says she knows that there’s still a long way to go with what she calls our “imperfect justice system,” but she’s confident we are moving in the right direction with the ITX and Mike Ware’s leadership.

The letter Jerry Johnson sent Tim Cole in prison confessing to the crime for which Cole was imprisoned.

“Not one innocent person should ever spend one minute in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Unfortunately, I have become very familiar with the justice system. ITX was a godsend, and I want to do what I can to give back. I think they hired me to weed out the bull…well those who aren’t telling the truth,” she says with a smile.

A 19-foot-tall statue of Tim Cole across the street from the main entrance to Texas Tech