In 1994, Elizabeth Ramirez was convicted of sexual assault when her two young nieces, ages seven and nine, alleged that she and three other women pinned them down and assaulted them.
For nearly 20 years, Ramirez has maintained her innocence. One of her nieces recanted the accusations in 2010, making exoneration a real—albeit delayed—possibility for Ramirez.
Despite their pleas of not guilty, Ramirez and the other women accused of the sexual assault were convicted at trial. Deemed the “ringleader” of the incident, Ramirez was sentenced to serve 40 years in prison while the other three women received 15 year sentences. All four women have continued to maintain their innocence.
At trial, the prosecution called San Antonio pediatrician Nancy Kellogg to testify that she examined the girls and discovered signs of sexual abuse. On cross-examination, the defense raised questions about the reliability of Dr. Kellogg’s testimony. The doctor testified she saw signs of “healed trauma” but admitted that she could not specifically determine when the injuries occurred. She also testified that the injuries could have been entirely accidental.
Since her incarceration, many individuals have stepped in to assist Ramirez in her fight for exoneration, including members of the Innocence Project of Texas and the National Center for Reason and Justice. Ramirez’s exoneration team is attempting to locate the photographic images of the girls’ alleged injuries taken during the medical examination in order to elicit opinions from other pediatric experts and determine whether Dr. Kellogg’s testimony was reliable.
Many involved feel that medical testimony from experts such as Dr. Kellogg can be dangerously misleading since many of these experts are pediatricians who by their very nature are sympathetic to the child and determined to find evidence that corroborates the allegation. Since the cause of any evidence of abnormalities detected during these examinations is subject to a wide range of opinions, the testimony of these experts in many cases is far from reliable. There have been several convictions that were purportedly supported by medical evidence which were later called into question by recantations similar to the one made by Ramirez’s niece.
Despite the recent strides made in Ramirez’s case, her release may still be years away. Her lawyers must file a petition in state court before her case can be heard by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Still, Ramirez and her supporters say they won’t give up until justice is obtained.
The consequences for wrongful convictions of child sexual assault are staggering. Individuals accused of these crimes can be convicted on minimal, and often flawed, forensic evidence. Additionally, the stigma of the conviction outlives any period of incarceration. Although one of the four women accused of assaulting Ramirez’s nieces was paroled earlier this month, she is severely restricted in her daily activities and communications. The woman cannot leave her home without permission and is not allowed to use a cell phone or computer.
A win for Ramirez here will certainly send a message that the use of medical expert testimony in child sexual assault cases needs to be re-examined and possibly subjected to stricter regulation by the courts. Cases such as this highlight just how important it is for criminal defense attorneys to retain independent medical experts in these case to refute claims that the medical examination of the child revealed evidence of sexual abuse.
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