The women, whose horrendous journey through the legal system — some will have spent nearly 15 years in prison for crimes they never committed, and that were never committed at all! — is heartbreakingly documented in Deborah S. Esquenazi's touching film Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four.
Back in 1994, the women were wrongfully convicted of aggravated sexual assault and indecency in a case involving two little girls, whose aunt was among the accused. After one of the two accusers grew up and found she had no negative memories of her aunt or of the women she'd helped send away, she questioned her father, a man with a grudge against his sister-in-law. She didn't accept his answers and publicly recanted, begging her aunt for forgiveness — which she received.
In 2012 and 2013, the remaining women were released (one had been paroled), but until today, their records were not expunged.
In its ruling, the court stated:
They are innocent. And they are exonerated. This court grants them the relief they seek.
Watch Southwest of Salem on ID Sunday, November 27, at 9 a.m. ET.
I am sometimes embarrassed to tell a woman the name of my blog, usually resorting to, “It's Boy Culture ... but we love girls, too!”
I've never felt less attached to the name than when I was watching the new documentary Southwest of Salem, which details the heartbreaking case of four Latinas from San Antonio, Texas, whose lesbianism almost certainly led to their being imprisoned for heinous crimes they did not commit; their story was almost certainly made possible by good ol' boy culture.
The four women with their lawyer (Image & video by Matthew Rettenmund)
The San Antonio Four—Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez—were a tight-knit group of friends who found themselves accused, in 1994, of gang-raping Ramirez's two young nieces. The girls told a wild tale of drug-fueled, Satanic-driven group sex, an expert testified that the girls' hymens were damaged and that's all their community and the local media needed to hear.
Convicted, Ramirez pulled over 37 years and her friends each received 16. Only problem is, they didn't do it, and the crime for which they were convicted almost beyond a doubt never happened in the first place.
When one of the girls accusing the women grew up and found she could not remember anything negative happening at all, she confronted her father, a man with plenty of reason to have an ax to grind when it came to his sister-in-law. He allegedly threatened her with taking her children away if she refused to stay silent. She went on the record anyway, and he did try, unsuccessfully, to meddle with her custody.
Her admission led to Vasquez's parole, and Vasquez made it her mission to help her fellow accused. Their long, torturous struggle makes up Southwest of Salem.
Director Deborah S. Esquenazi has turned in a sobering, no-frills documentary that painstakingly details the case, which has yet to fully resolve; the women are currently free, but as the film shows, they are still fighting for justice.
Esquenazi documents how the expert testimony in the original case was not only flimsy, but later disavowed by the same expert who gave it; how the police seemed all too eager to lump the crime in with the last gasp of the now totally debunked Satanic ritual abuse epidemic (the film's only arty flourish is a sequence of footage from the Silent Era that eerily communicates the accusers' over-the-top fabulism); and how the legal system is set up to keep admissions of error extremely hard to solicit, let alone receive.
Most impressively, the director accomplishes this while telling the very human stories of the women, and of the accuser who set out to make things right years later.
She also deftly touches on the role (or lack thereof) of the nascent San Antonio gay community back in the '90s when the case first achieved notoriety, and on the roles of Catholicism and family in the women's lives.
Portions of the Q&A from the screening I attended:
There are many deeply moving sequences in Southwest of Salem—which has no shortage of parallels from which to draw in comparing the Massachusetts witch hunts of the 1600s with the way POC and LGBTQ people are still routinely treated by the U.S. justice system—including scenes of despair and of joy long withheld. For me, the most compelling scene is when an elderly, white, male, Texan judge is tasked with deciding whether a case he himself presided over may have gotten it wrong. One question he asks will chill you to the bone, and should lead any right-minded citizen to ask a dozen more questions about the efficacy of our system.