Junk Science Behind a Salem Witch Trial for Our Era

by Aimée Sutton

A new Texas law known as the “Junk Science Writ” has recently been used to call into question the convictions of the “San Antonio Four,” four women who were found guilty in the late 1990’s of child rape.

The allegations arose back in 1997 when a young San Antonio woman spent a weekend with her two nieces. Within a few weeks, that woman, Elizabeth Ramirez, and three of her friends were accused of raping the two young girls.

All four women maintained their innocence throughout the course of the investigation and their various trials. The trials garnered much publicity at the time because of the lurid nature of the allegations. The two young girls told stories of being raped by the four women at gunpoint while the four ingested drugs and conducted a satanic orgy.

The allegations were so bizarre that a jury might have had trouble believing them— except that the prosecution presented the medical opinion of Dr. Nancy Kellogg, a well-respected local physician. Dr. Kellogg testified that she observed “scarring,” or raised white lines, on the hymen of one of the girls. Her opinion was that the “scarring” indicated trauma.

The nearly two decades that have passed while the four women served their sentences have brought advances in forensic science. People have been exonerated by new scientific understanding of old investigative techniques. In response, Texas has enacted one of the nation’s most progressive laws to facilitate challenges to questionable convictions. In 2013, the legislature enacted the “Junk Science Writ.” It established a procedure to attack convictions on the basis that they rest on outdated science.

Attorneys for the San Antonio Four took advantage of the law to challenge the medical testimony presented by Dr. Kellogg. The defense attorneys pointed out that even at the time of the trial there was research that indicated that raised white lines, such as the ones she found on the older girl’s hymen, were merely normal variations in vaginal appearance.

Dr. Kellogg admitted as much. In a sworn affidavit filed in September 2013, she recanted her testimony and agreed that she was wrong.

Earlier this year, the court in Texas agreed with the women and recommended that the convictions of all four women be vacated. They were all released from prison before the end of their sentences. They are still waiting to see if the court will go one step further and declare them “actually innocent.”