At her 1994 murder trial, her own children testified that she had grabbed their 4-year-old cousin Lynette Orozco by the hair and shoved her under the water in a plastic wading pool until she drowned.
More than a decade later, Dolores Macias' children signed sworn statements saying that their paternal grandmother had brainwashed them into lying about their mother.
On Monday, however, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Stephen A. Marcus shot down Macias' claims of innocence, in a stern and lengthy rebuke to both her and the California Innocence Project, which is run by California Western School of Law in San Diego and had championed her cause.
The case showed how messy the court process can seem when dissected after the fact in a writ of habeas corpus, a centuries-old legal instrument to ask a judge to release a prisoner.
And it demonstrated state courts' long-standing wariness of witnesses who recant their testimony.
Marcus held that Macias' daughter Melody had \o7not \f7agreed to take back her testimony, contrary to the declaration filed by the project's attorneys.
And he concluded that Macias' two sons, Gilbert and Frankie, were simply more credible as children than as adults.
"Petitioner Macias has attempted to manipulate and brainwash her children to come forward and recant their testimony for some time," the judge said, reading from his 13-page ruling. "The willingness of the petitioner to sacrifice her own children, especially Gilbert Alvarez, for her own horrible actions of drowning a young child, speaks volumes about her character."
Macias blinked away tears as he spoke.
When Marcus tried to address the three grown children, Gilbert Alvarez, 21, screamed at him, "Nah, mom didn't do anything!" He cursed the judge, pounded the bar that separates spectators from the judge and stormed out.
Macias began screaming too. "Why don't they give me a lie detector test? I didn't do nothing. I swear!"
A deputy escorted her out of the courtroom.
Justin Brooks, Macias' attorney and director of the California Innocence Project, said he was surprised by the ruling.
"When I came in today, I fully expected we'd be driving Dolores home tonight," he said. "Not only is she innocent, but she's already served the minimum sentence for the crime."
Brooks said the judge erred by not allowing him to call an expert witness to explain "why children say things that are not true."
Brooks said Lynette's mother -- Macias' sister Olivia Orozco -- had testified that Macias was inside the house with her when her daughter drowned.
Orozco openly wept during the judge's ruling, saying that her sister was innocent.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Laura Jane Kessner had no comment. But in court documents she contended that Orozco had given different accounts of what happened that day and that "the jury had an opportunity to weigh the credibility of the witnesses, including Ms. Orozco.... "
Prosecutors also alleged that Orozco and Macias' family members had "pressured the witnesses to falsely recant" and "directly and indirectly threatened" them.
The children's accounts of what happened in that Bell backyard in July 1990 have changed several times.
Melody, then 4, first told police that Gilbert had held Lynette's head underwater until mucus came out of her mouth, according to Macias' habeas petition.
Gilbert was held in Juvenile Hall briefly and then released to his paternal grandmother, Sara Alvarez, who gained custody of the three siblings.
Two years later, Alvarez went to authorities and said Melody had told her that her mother did it.
Sheriff's detectives interviewed the children, and the district attorney charged Macias in January 1994. At trial, Melody, then 7, testified that she ran inside to tell her mother that Lynette had hit her. She said her mother went outside, grabbed Lynette by the hair and shoved her underwater. When her efforts to revive the girl failed, Macias told Melody to tell police that Gilbert had drowned his cousin, according to the testimony. Macias was convicted of murder and sentenced to 19 years to life.
The California Innocence Project began looking at her case in 2001. Project attorneys got sworn statements from Melody and her brother Frankie -- 7 at the time of the drowning -- alleging that Alvarez had coerced them into concocting the story about their mother.
"When I lived with Grandma Sara, she always questioned me about the story of Gilbert drowning Lynette," Melody's declaration said. "She would suggest that someone else did it. I knew she was trying to make me think my mom drowned Lynette because I knew Grandma Sara did not like my mom."
The project filed the habeas petition in February 2006.
The district attorney fought back, denying that Melody had recanted her testimony. "She did not read it nor did she understand its contents," Kessner wrote of the declaration.
"The People further allege that Melody Alvarez \o7specifically\f7 told Project investigator David Loy ... that she and other witnesses had been threatened by Dolores Macias' family members ... and that she would not recant her testimony," Kessner wrote.
Judge Marcus, in his ruling, agreed with the district attorney on most, if not all, of the key points. He chastised the California Innocence Project for not giving its law students enough guidance, saying that one student offered to testify on Melody's behalf in an unrelated court matter as "an inducement."
Brooks said the student did not offer any inducement and characterized the issue as a red herring.
"The D.A. can threaten witnesses with perjury and show up at their houses with badges and guns," he said. "We're on a shoestring budget. All we have are law students who go out and ask what happened."