The College’s Innocence Club hosts exoneree Elizabeth Ramirez, wrongfully convicted of assault

Members of the Innocence Club attend exoneree Elizabeth Ramirez's talk.

Sunday, Feb. 18, the Innocence Club at the College of William and Mary hosted exoneree Elizabeth Ramirez to discuss her personal experiences with wrongful conviction. Ramirez, along with three other women collectively known as the “San Antonio Four,” was wrongfully convicted in 1997 for aggravated assault of a child. She shared about her time in prison and the adjustment back to civilian life after her charges were dropped.

Ramirez appeared via Zoom, and was first introduced by the Innocence Club President Kelsey McAlister ’24 and Vice President Jon Wilkins ’24, then began telling her story.

“The case started in 1994,” Ramirez said. “I was 19 years old at the time of the alleged crime, me and my four friends. During the ’90s, it was very hard if anyone that was gay or lesbian came forward. Over the next decade, but especially at that time. And so, we had a lot of bias and a lot of issues where my brother-in-law wasn’t very happy. And the night before, my nieces had stayed over for the weekend, and because he didn’t appreciate my lifestyle, he accused us of assaulting my two nieces on two different occasions.”

She shared that she felt naive during the trial and confused about how they could wrongfully convict an innocent person. She lost her trial and was sentenced to 37 and a half years of prison by the Bexar County Criminal District Court in Texas.

Ramirez reflected on her time spent imprisoned.

“I was very young when I got incarcerated, and so I kind of grew up there,” Ramirez said. “I was almost forty years old [when released], so it was difficult. My mom had always raised me to be very respectful, no matter where I was at, and it was very hard to not get caught up in the system. I was very naive and I didn’t know a lot about, I guess life itself. Like I said, we were only 19, which is just high school, and you learn so much in there, but I didn’t want to be another statistic in prison. So, I did learn, I did work in the print shop, and I learned a trade because I knew that, if I couldn’t come home, I would be 62 years old. And I would have to learn a trade because I wouldn’t have any retirement. I wouldn’t have anything when I walked out those doors.”

Ramirez was exonerated in 2016 with the help of the Innocence Project of Texas. The Innocence Project found that the former evidence presented at her 1997 trial was not clear, and eventually, Ramirez’s niece came forward and testified that the assault allegations were false. Ramirez was released from prison after 17 years and explained the difficulty of re-entering society after nearly two decades. 

“I was scared coming home and San Antonio wasn’t the same,” Ramirez said. “It grew so much. We had no knowledge about technology. I didn’t know anything about Wi-Fi. And people never even used money anymore. I didn’t know how to use a credit card. It was very difficult, even sending an email. Because I was in prison, we didn’t have access to computers or anything like that. We did have a TV where we can kind of watch shows and magazines, so you try to stay up to date with things, but actually coming home and being a part of that was scary. It was learning to walk again, pretty much. I didn’t know what people were thinking or what their reaction would be if they saw me on the news and then they saw me in person. I worked for Toyota and for a print shop when I first came home, and my conversations with them were very, very short.”

During the question and answer session following her presentation, students asked questions about her emotional state throughout her incarceration and exoneration experience, her struggles with being accepted for her sexuality and how society can best support people coming out of prison. Ramirez stated the importance of not only giving monetary donations to foundations like the Innocence Project, but sharing the word of wrongful convictions and gathering support for programs that try to help. She added that formerly-incarcerated people often feel alone due to the lack of resources and guidance available to aid them in this process.

“Just having support of someone, and knowing that they’re there to help, showing you how to send an email, make a driver’s license or birth certificate. It can be defeating to find a job and get back to society,” Ramirez said. 

Following the event, Emma Fix ’26 discussed her reflections.

“I think her story is really important because it does show how we, who are on the outside, can help people who are coming back into society because I think it’s very jarring,” Fix said.

McAlister explained the role of the College’s chapter of the Innocence Club.

“There is an Innocence Project in each state and we are more so not affiliated officially with that project,” McAlister said. “We are more so a club that’s trying to advocate for their work and help, like raising money and educating each other. But since we’re not able to do any legal work, we are not technically a part of that organization. The law school has a clinic, and they are technically one of many Innocence clinics around the nation.”

McAlister continued to reflect on Ramirez’s story.

“With this case, it’s so crazy because it’s kind of the pinnacle of what’s going on with America right now, in the sense that she was a woman of color and she was lesbian and both of those facts were used against her. That’s what created this crime. Her brother-in-law just accused her, and she was saying the criminal justice system was fast to pick up and charge and convict her,” McAlister said.

Today, Ramirez holds a full time job with the Innocence Project of Texas in San Antonio, and is studying to become a paralegal. All four of the women wrongly convicted in the case remained close friends, and they work together with the Innocence Project to educate others about wrongful convictions around the country.


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