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Texas to release "San Antonio Four" in lesbian sexual assault case

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - Texas prosecutors reached a deal on Monday to release three women imprisoned since 1998 on sexual assault convictions that critics say were based more on mistaken ideas of lesbian behavior than evidence presented in court.

Cheers erupted in a San Antonio court when a lawyer for the women told a packed gallery of supporters that a deal was reached to allow the release as early as Monday of Kristie Mayhugh, Elizabeth Ramirez and Cassandra Rivera. A fourth woman convicted in the case is already out on parole.

Under the deal, the women will be released on bail pending an appeal. Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed said prosecutors would not pursue a conviction, adding expert medical testimony from the 1997 trial would not stand up to scrutiny now.

"It was a complete injustice to us," Anna Vasquez, the woman on parole, told Reuters after the deal was announced.

"At this point in my life, I am past angry. I've just learned to deal with it and move forward and not hold all that negativity inside."

The group known as the "San Antonio Four" was convicted of sexually assaulting Ramirez's 7- and 9-year-old nieces and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 to 37 years.

They have denied guilt and their supporters have slammed testimony presented by the state medical witness at trial, pediatrician Nancy Kellogg.

Kellogg testified about what she said were physical injuries inflicted upon the girls as part of Satanic rituals that she said were prevalent among some lesbians.

Anti-gay bias was at the heart of the case, due to mistaken ideas, now discredited, that gays and lesbians were more prone to sexually abuse children, according to San Antonio gay rights advocate Graciela Sanchez, one of dozens of supporters wearing rainbow buttons who packed the small courtroom.

"This definitely took place because this was a witch hunt against four lesbians, and four Latina lesbians," she said.

The case will next go to an appeals court, with Reed saying the state does not intend to prosecute the women. This will, in effect, quash the criminal charges but falls short of an exoneration.

"If a new trial were to occur, the expert would not testify to the same thing that was testified to at the time of the trial," Reed said after the proceedings.

Mike Ware, an attorney representing the four through the Innocence Project of Texas, said he would fight to have the women declared innocent and for the state to compensate them from a fund that pays those who were unjustly convicted.

"That is basically the way the state can apologize to them for what happened," he said.

(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; editing by Andrew Hay)

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