Saturday, May 30, 2009

Very Squishy Knowledge

Physics and mathematics are known as the pure sciences. The accepted "facts" of these disciplines can usually be verified by mathematical proof. If 2+2=4 then 4-2=2. It doesn't leave a lot of room for argument. The late Harvard University Paleontologist Steven Jay Gould referred to Biology and the Social Sciences as the "squishy" sciences. These disciplines do not provide clear mathematical proofs, but rely primarily on statistical probabilities to support their theories.

In courtroom trials of the "he said-she said" variety, there is often a complete lack of any meaningful physical or corroborating evidence. The jury must make a decision based primarily by weighing the perceived credibility of one person's word against another, and of course, the pomp and theatrical abilities of their respective lawyers. In child sexual abuse trials this is often the case. But the reality is that most juries find child witnesses to be highly credible, in spite of the fact that it has now been shown that children often lie on the witness stand, for a variety of reasons. Juries also convict not because there is innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, but because there is the possibility that the accused person might be guilty, and they don't want the responsibility of setting them free to abuse another child. This is a manifestation of the child sexual abuse hysteria that has become an integral part of our culture over the last quarter century. By reaching verdicts based on these fears, juries have sent untold innocents to prison for decades, or life.

In reviewing the sparse and often circumstantial evidence in these cases, one can never be absolutely certain of whether or not the alleged assault actually occurred. Anytime any adult is alone with a child there is the possibility that a sexual assault could have occurred. Eventually you have to come down on the side of guilt or innocence of the accused. That decision is based on epistemological knowledge. After reviewing all of the evidence we ask ourselves the question - does this accusation seem plausible and reasonable? That is as much an intuitive decision as it is a logical one. And therefore, it is a decision subject to the pitfalls of human fallibility, fear and ignorance.

Very squishy knowledge indeed!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Media Attention!!

After a year-and-a-half of banging the drum we finally got some media attention.

I would like to extend kudos to Michael Hall and Elaine Smith at Texas Monthly for taking the time to review the evidence in this case, recognizing a serious travesty of justice had occurred, and giving us some space on their webmagazine.

Michael investigated and wrote a feature piece for the April 2009 magazine on the controversial Mineola Swinger's Club case. On the TM webmagazine Gary Cartwright revisited the horrible case of Dan and Fran Keller who were convicted in an Austin satanic-abuse case in 1992, and remain in prison to this day. Also, Michael wrote a short summary/background piece entitled Hysteria, that linked to a short piece called Behind Bars he had asked me to write about my involvement in the case.

The media adage that "ink begets ink" must hold sway here, as less than week later the Austin Chronicle published a set of investigative articles by Jordan Smith, Michael King and Jena Birchum on the Keller case.

In the last few days I have been contacted by several Texas journalists who have expressed interest about investigating and writing about the Four Lives Lost case. Hopefully this is the leading edge of a groundswell of media interest in the few remaining cases of MPMV convictions, where innocent people continue to languish in prison.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Journalistic Apathy

Good journalists wear their skepticism like a badge of honor. However, as the recent rash of DNA exonerations has shown, when the media fail to be objective in their reporting of questionable criminal cases, a layer of protection for innocent citizens is bypassed.

Coverage of this case by the Texas media was scant. San Antonio Express-News wrote one article on Elizabeth Ramirez' conviction, and three short pieces during the trial of Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh. While the newspaper reports are primary "just the facts" reporting, what struck me after reading them was the absolute lack of skepticism. This was a multi-perpetrator, multi-victim assault carried out by 4 young women with no criminal records or history of drug abuse. A woman sexually assaulting pre-pubertal children is a very rare occurrence. A gang of women doing so is rare as a herd of unicorns. Yet the reporters treated this highly unusual case with seeming apathy and nonchalance. There should have been a huge outcry and followup with secondary investigation into the facts of the case. But it never happened. If the women had been heterosexual would the case have been reported differently?

The articles fail to address discrepancies in testimony between the two trials. Notably who held the gun following the alleged assaults. There was no acknowledgment of the fact that there was at least one previous unfounded allegation made by the girls, or that Prosecutor Kazen would not allow the statements of the other three women to be brought into evidence at Elizabeth's trial. The newspaper articles say there was medical evidence brought by Dr. Nancy Kellogg, but fail to mention this evidence was never challenged by defense witnesses. There was no investigation into the accusers or their family background. The evidence was very one-sided and for the most part parroted the prosecutions case. Perhaps court reporters are leery about questioning evidence in trials involving crimes against children. The prosecutor is seen as protecting children and questioning evidence might be seen as protecting child sexual abusers.

The Texas media completely failed these four women in terms of questioning the charges brought against them. When the media have too much faith in the system, and fail to exercise a healthy level of skepticism, innocent people are convicted. Investigative journalism needs to take place pre-conviction to prevent this from happening.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Texas Pilgrimage 2008

On December 11, 2008 I flew out of Whitehorse and started my second (annual?) pilgrimage to Texas. I had been looking forward to visiting with Elizabeth and the others, as well as their families, and making other contacts in the State while I was there. Maintaining contact with the four women is important for a number of reasons. For Elizabeth, with another 25 years on her sentence, losing herself in the Texas prison system and her connections with the "free world" is a very real threat with disastrous consequences. Because of the distance I travel I am able to get a "special visit" consisting of two four-hour sessions on Saturday and Sunday. Normally visits are for two hours once per weekend. Since I am a non-family member visits are made with a sheet of plate glass between us talking through a telephone receiver. Having this face-to-face communication is important. Virtually all of my contact with the four women has been through letters sent in the mail. Because of the distance between Marlin, Texas and Whitehorse, Yukon that entails up to 3 weeks for a set of letters, and any questions and answers, to be exchanged. Clarity of communication becomes paramount in that situation. After the patience required of snail mail, instant communication feels like a luxury almost too good to be true. Inmate telephones are scheduled to be installed in Texas prisons in 2009, but there are questions whether or not they will be able to call into Canada.

This year I only got to visit with Elizabeth and Kristie. Texas inmates are only allowed to make a change to their visitor's list every six months. Unfortunately Cassie had just made a change to her list back in September when I first informed her I was coming. I went to Mountain View on Saturday morning on the chance they might let me in anyways. To his credit the officer at the gate did his job, stuck to the rules, and refused the visit. Anna and Elizabeth are both at the Hobby Unit near Marlin, Texas. For some reason I was under the impression that it was against the rules to visit two people on the same Unit. Because of that I didn't send Anna my information so she could put me on her list. I was later informed that it is permissible to visit two people on the same Unit, but it was too late to get me on the list. Felt bad about that because I really would have liked to have met Anna, and Cassie as well. It was poor planning on my part and next year I will have this all sorted out.

It has been almost 3 years since Elizabeth and I started exchanging letters. Finding her letter in my mailbox every Tuesday or Wednesday night when I get home from work has become an important part of my life. Through those letters we have developed an incredible ease and depth of communication. The strange thing that happened is that on the first day of the visit there was this sense of disconnect, and I found my self trying to reconcile that the person in front of me was the same person behind the words on those pieces of paper in my mailbox. I was frustrated and found the conversation remaining more superficial than I had imagined or wanted. On Saturday night I was able to work that through in my mind, and on Sunday we had a much more substantive chat. How 4 hours could possibly go by so quickly I will never know.

I knew from my experience last year that the absolute worst part of the entire trip comes on Sunday evening when visitation ends, and I start my journey back to San Antonio. The elation and month of anticipation leading up to getting to talk to Elizabeth in person is followed by a cruel and sudden jarring back to reality. Having to leave them behind in that awful place, knowing full well they are completely innocent of those crimes fills me with gut-wrenching sadness and outrage. The knot in my stomach didn't start to ease until I was south of Austin. At the same time the emotional impact is what renews my energy and commitment to help them uncover the truth and find the justice they so deserve

The good news I was able to give to the women was the the National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ) Board of Directors had voted unanimously on their innocence and a commitment to sponsor their case. We had submitted an application back for sponsorship in August and they spent almost four months vetting the information we supplied them. Having NCRJ onside is a definite step forward for the case, and will hopefully open some doors for them in their pursuit of truth and justice. This was very important because there had been no forward momentum for nearly a decade. Psychologically this will give everyone hope and something to believe in once again.

Spent my last three days in San Antonio and did the tourist thing visiting the Alamo and downtown San Antonio. Maria Vasquez, Anna's mother, very kindly put me up at the La Quinta hotel in the center of downtown SA. From my 14th floor room I had a great view of downtown San Antonio. On my last day in SA Mrs. Vasquez took me and Anna's friend, Melody, out to dinner at an old Mexican restaurant. It was great food and a really Mariachi band that walked around playing. A side benefit of my advocacy is that I have been able to explore and discover Tex-Mex or Tejano culture. It is all very new and interesting to me.

It was sad to get on the plane to come home on Thursday morning but I was glad to have made the trip. It definitely renews my commitment to the case. My plane was held up on the tarmac in SA and I missed my connection in Phoenix. I got rerouted on a flight to Salt Lake City full of overly-polite Mormons, and finally got into Vancouver at 11 p.m. I had missed the last flight to Whitehorse so I had to overnight and get the first flight out Friday morning. I grabbed a cab downtown and was able to get a hotel and catch the last set at the Yale. Ironically it was a Stevie Ray Vaughan cover band called "Texas Flood". I don't get to see a lot of live music living up here, so maybe it wasn't such a bad day after all.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Harmless Error

The controversial term "harmless error" is often used by Texas appellate judges in their opinion response to criminal trial appeals. In Elizabeth Ramirez' appeal to the COURT OF APPEALS OF TEXAS, FOURTH DISTRICT, SAN ANTONIO Justice Alma L. Lopez describes comments made by prosecutor Phillip A. Kazen during his cross-examination of Elizabeth as "harmless error".

From the text of the appeal response:

In her fourth issue, Ramirez argues that the trial court erred by failing to grant a mistrial because of an improper comment by the prosecutor. Ramirez is referring to a remark that the prosecutor made in response [*7] to her testimony denying culpability. After Ramirez testified that she loved V.L. and that she would not hurt V.L in any way, the prosecutor remarked: "So says O.J., Ma'am." Ramirez's attorney then asked for a mistrial and the trial court denied the request.

In front of the jury, Kazen made a comment that made a direct comparison between Elizabeth's relationship with V.L. and that of O.J. Simpson with his murdered ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson.

Later in the appeal response, Lopez describes the evidence against Elizabeth as being "overwhelming". This statement directly contradicts Prosecutor Kazen who tells the court that the crux of the evidence presented at trial consists of Elizabeth's word against her niece, V.L. There was no physical evidence or corroborating adult witness to the girls claim, only her statement and testimony.

Elizabeth's trial took place in February 1997, less than two years after O.J. Simpson's highly publicized murder trial and subsequent acquittal. The stark and powerful image of Nicole Brown Simpson's body lying on her doorstep with her throat slashed, spattered with blood, contrasted with her former husband's smug, self-assured attitude at a trial where he was defended by the best lawyers in America. These images had been repeatedly broadcast in both print and television media shortly before Elizabeth's trial. Those images had, and continue to have, a profound emotional effect on the general public. The belief that O.J. Simpson "got away with murder" was widespread.

For appeals justice Lopez to call Prosecutor Kazen's direct comparison of Elizabeth Ramirez with O.J. Simpson "harmless error" is colossal error. That Kazen's statement was, in fact error at all, is questionable. The magnitude of the visceral response that comparison and its associated images elicited in the general public, and therefore the jury, would have been tremendous. Taking into account Elizabeth's only defense was the credibility of her testimony before the jury, this statement becomes more than enough to inflame their minds, and grossly prejudice the verdict. In Elizabeth's cross-examination, Kazen's primary goal was to destroy her credibility. It seems unlikely he made this statement in error. Considering how quickly he responded to Elizabeth's claim that she loved V.L., it is seems more likely to have been premeditated and intentional. A more likely scenario is that Kazen had been waiting for Elizabeth to express her feelings for V.L., and had preplanned his response.

That statement in caused tremendous harm, and appears unlikely to have been made in error.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Portraying Liz as a Liar

Elizabeth's defense lawyer Freddie Ruiz decided to put her on the stand as part of her defense. In fact she was the only witness for the defense. This meant that prosecutor Kazen was able to cross-examine her. Since the only real evidence the prosecution had was the testimony of V.L. the trial would come down to her word against her aunt Elizabeth's. Kazen's goal was to destroy Elizabeth's credibility by portraying her as a liar. He used several points from her sworn statement to attempt to do this in front of the jury. However, Kazen has no solid evidence of mendacity on Elizabeth's part, his arguments are taken out of context, to intentionally achieve his goal. The fact of the matter is that Elizabeth's statements are very consistent and credible; her alibis are supported by her work schedule.

The charges laid against the four women were ambiguous with respect to time, and stated that the sexual assault occurred “on or about July 24....” During the initial police interviews, the crimes were alleged to have occurred in the evening. During the initial interview of Elizabeth Ramirez, Detective Matjeka asked her for her whereabouts during the evenings when there was a possibility for all of the alleged perpetrators as well as the "victims" to have been present in the apartment. Elizabeth was able to provide a work alibi for those times. Matjeka then changed the time that the assault was to have happened to daytime, or as prosecutor Kazen states, “when he found out that it happened during the day, you changed your statement”(Vol. III p. 428). Because she worked as a floating manager at Arby’s restaurants, Liz also happened to be working days at the newly alleged times. During cross-examination prosecutor Kazen used this ambiguous information to infer that Liz had lied to Matjeka in her statement by first saying she worked nights, and then saying she worked days. It was in fact not Elizabeth, but rather Matjeka, who had changed his story to attempt to get the time and date to coincide with a possible time for the assault to have occurred. Liz says that during question "(Matjeka) kept telling me different stories". The reality is that Liz only answered the questions she was asked. The assault was also alleged to have occurred on July 24, but Liz had medical records showing that she was in hospital that day. The investigators weren't even sure what week the alleged assaults were supposed to have happened at the outset, and that is why they used the "on or about" language in the formal charges.

When Liz had a solid alibi for the crime, Matjeka simply picked a different day.

Both Elizabeth and Cassandra claimed that Detective Matjeka repeatedly told them that he would have their children taken away from them by Child Protection Services if they did not fully cooperate with him in the investigation Although Elizabeth had no children, she was 4 months pregnant at the time the investigation began, and she says that Matjeka repeatedly threatened to have her child taken away the day it was born if she didn’t admit to the crimes. Matjeka denied these allegations during the trial. During Elizabeth's trial prosecutor Kazen makes a point of asking why this threat of taking her child away was not included in the statement and calls Liz a liar because it is not there. The reality is that it was Matjeka writing down the statement, and no police officer would ever include any evidence of the psychological pressures they put on a suspect to get them to "confess" to be put in a sworn statement.

These "inconsistencies" would not have been available to prosecutors if the women had known to exercise their constitutional right, and said the 7 magic words - "I want to speak to a lawyer." When a suspect being questioned exercises this right police will say "why, do you have something to hide?" But if the police are operating above board, they should have no concerns about the presence of a lawyer during interrogations.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A History of Unfounded Allegations

In addition to the claim of sexual assault made against Elizabeth Ramirez and her friends there are a number of other similar claims made by Javier Limon the girl's father, and Serafina Limon, the girls paternal grandmother. These other claims all bear a number of similarities to the description of the assault Elizabeth and her co-defendants have been convicted of, and all these claims of sexual assault lack any physical or corroborating evidence, whatsoever. In every one of these instances there is evidence of a family dispute or custody battle.

The first unsubstantiated claim occurred in Denver, Colorado and involved allegations against a 10-year-old boy the girls claim their mother left them with while she went out with her boyfriend. In the course that event they claimed that the boy took them into the bedroom and that he and the younger girl, S.L., were naked from the waist down and that the boy had been “sticking his thing” into S.L. The girl’s father, Javier Limon, claims that shortly after bringing them back to San Antonio from Denver in 1992, his daughters were caught acting out sexually with dolls, which led to their disclosing these events to him. Mr. Limon took his daughters to the Children’s Advocacy Center where they underwent a physical examination for evidence of sexual assault. This was some time after the alleged events and the results of the examination were that there was no evidence of sexual assault.

Although the medical report from this examination were in the possession of the District Attorney’s office, they were never introduced at Elizabeth Ramirez’ trial. Elizabeth’s defense attorney, Freddie Ruiz, claims the report was not among the discovery materials. Prosecutor Philip A. Kazen Jr. claims the report was in the file but that “Freddie missed it”.

The second unsubstantiated allegation of sexual assault was made against a man named Oscar Aguirre Sr. in Denver, Colorado. Javier Limon and Rosemary Camarillo, the girl’s mother, had been involved in a long-term common-law relationship, which ended in 1991. At the time of the breakup Rosemary and the girls had been living with the Aguirre family in Colorado. Rosemary and Javier had known the Aguirre family from San Antonio and had gone to school with some of their children. After Javier took the girls back to San Antonio Rosemary ended up marrying Oscar Aguirre Jr. and returned to San Antonio to be closer to her girls. This occurred sometime in 1993. When Javier found out that Rosemary had married Mr. Aguirre, he was very upset and made accusations that his father, Oscar Aguirre Sr. had been sexually assaulting S.L. and V.L. According to Rosemary there was a heated confrontation between Javier and Mr. Aguirre’s family members regarding these allegations. The family made it clear that there would be serious consequences if Javier did not have substantial evidence to support his claims against their father. After this confrontation no more was heard from Javier with respect to these allegations against Mr. Aguirre. Shortly after this event Rosemary and Mr. Aguirre Jr. had their home raided by police an Mr. Aguirre was charged and convicted of selling marijuana and received a 10 year prison sentence. Rosemary believes that Javier Limon had been part of this police raid. Once Mr. Aguirre Jr. was in prison Javier became very attentive to Rosemary with offers of money. Rosemary refused these offers and eventually moved back to Colorado to evade constant harassment by Javier Limon. I have an email from Rosemary Camarillo giving a general outline of these events. She has stated that she would be willing to sign an affidavit if requested to do so.

In 2005 S.L. had been living with her aunt Christina in Colorado. S.L. had been in the care of CPS due to severe behavioral problems and Christina had threatened to put her out of the house because of her actions. S.L. then returned to San Antonio and moved in with her mother for a year. Some time after arriving at her mother’s house S.L. told her mother that Christina’s boyfriend had repeatedly raped her during the day while Christina was at work. There were no witnesses or corroborating evidence of these assaults, and although S.L. was 17 at the time she sought no medical attention, nor did she file a police report. When Rosemary confronted her that this was another false claim initiated as retaliation because Christina had asked her to leave, there was a heated argument between Rosemary and S.L. After approximately one year Rosemary asked S.L. to move out of the house. The primary reason for give for this by Rosemary is that S.L. is a liar and very manipulative.

The other claim of sexual assault was the one that S.L. and V.L. made against their aunt Elizabeth and her friends. These allegations followed directly on the heels of Elizabeth refusing to marry their father Javier Limon. During her testimony at the second trial V.L. acknowledged that she was aware of her aunt Elizabeth’s bisexuality and that her father strongly disapproved of this. She was also aware that Javier had asked Elizabeth to marry him and she had refused his offer.

All of these reported sexual assaults seem to be associated with a family dispute where claims of sexual assault closely follow a custody dispute, divorce or other family disagreement. There are never any witnesses, corroborating or physical evidence. Only the claims of the "victims".