Originally published on Slate.com
By June Thomas
On the night of Saturday, Oct. 15, every LGBTQ person and ally—and anyone who wants to see unequivocal proof of how messed up the American criminal justice system is—should plant themselves in front of a TV set and watch Southwest of Salem. The documentary, which airs on Investigation Discovery at 8 p.m., tells the story of the San Antonio Four—a group of Latina lesbians who were wrongly convicted of gang-raping two girls in the mid-’90s. Each served more than a decade in prison.
Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez, all now in their early 40s, were found guilty of aggravated sexual assault on a child after two of Ramirez’s nieces, then 7 and 9, claimed the four women had raped them with various objects while they were staying in Ramirez and Mayhugh’s home. As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie explained in a 2013 Slate piece, the case was a product of “a weird, panicked time in recent American history, when the word gay or lesbian was too often conflated with pedophile.” Despite inconsistencies in the girls’ stories; the fact that their father was angry at Ramirez, his former sister-in-law, for rejecting his romantic advances and coming out as a lesbian; and evidence of overt and coded homophobia in the women’s trials, all four ended up behind bars.
More than 16 years later, one of the accusers recanted her story, claiming that both she and her sister were pressured by their father into making the claims. The scientific expert, who had testified that physical evidence proved the girls had been abused, also recanted. And after the Innocence Project of Texas got involved, the women received early releases—though the crimes are still on their records.
Thanks to the national media, the story of the San Antonio Four finally became known outside of south and central Texas earlier this decade. And while Deborah S. Esquenazi’s film doesn’t bring new facts to light, it communicates the sting of injustice with the immediacy of a slap to the face. There is a bracing contrast between the four women we first meet in prison visits—where they seem calm and centered, despite having been robbed of an average of 14 years of their lives—and the teenage lesbians we glimpse in home movies and candid photos. Those young women in love look happy and ready to take on the world: Vasquez and Rivera were raising Rivera’s two children together, and we see the whole group celebrating at a baby shower for Ramirez. A few scenes later, they’re in a courtroom, shocked to see that the accusations they considered ridiculous have landed them before a judge. They didn’t even consult an attorney at first, believing their innocence would be obvious. “That turned out to be a mistake,” Vasquez later observes.
The movie doesn’t linger on the women’s trials, but it effectively exposes the raw homophobia that the prosecution exploited relentlessly. It also explains how the case fit into the Satanic abuse panic that infected America in the 1980s and ’90s. After the juries convict all four women, they’re sent to prison—locked up and without the financial wherewithal or connections to bring attention to their case.
Then Darrell Otto, an academic from Yukon College in Canada, becomes aware of the case, decides that “it just didn’t make sense,” and begins corresponding with Ramirez. Before long, the National Center for Reason and Justice and the Innocence Project of Texas are involved—and, largely unmentioned in the film, the San Antonio News-Express tackles the story. Witnesses recant, junk science is debunked, and eventually the women are given early release.
And that’s where things get really heartbreaking. Vasquez, released first, in 2012, is placed on the sex offender registry and subjected to all manner of restrictions. We see her driving to the grocery store on a route provided by her probation officer in order to avoid schools, parks, and any other places children might be found. The next year, the others leave prison, and the reunions are emotional. Ramirez and Rivera are reunited with the children—now teenagers—they haven’t seen in more than a decade. (Because of the nature of their convictions, they weren’t allowed contact visits with their kids.) “I’m your grandma, baby,” Rivera says, meeting her granddaughter for the first time in the moments after she leaves jail.
For me, the most affecting line in the whole movie is Vasquez’s observation that “Inmates can’t write to one another.” Isolated during their years behind bars, the women later discovered that they had all been writing letters to try to bring attention to the case—and like Vasquez, Rivera and Mayhugh had also refused to participate in their prisons’ sex-offender program, even though it cost them privileges and even a chance of freedom. There was, in addition, a personal dimension: Vasquez and Rivera had been a couple for seven years when they were locked up. “Cass and I, we never broke up,” Vasquez told me when I met the four women in New York in September. “We were forced to separate for many years. We’re both in committed relationships, and our partners know that there’s nothing that could ever come between us. We still have that love and respect. I don’t think that will ever change.”
In person, and in the film, the women are astonishingly free of bitterness. All acknowledged that they had experienced moments of anger—“I had a lot of anger because I was taken from my children,” Ramirez told me. But none are mad at the girls who falsely accused them. “There were six victims, not four,” Ramirez added. The film includes an emotional scene in which the recanted accuser, then 27, meets her Aunt Liz for the first time since her release. Amid many tears, the two embrace. How, I asked Ramirez, was that reconciliation possible?
“They didn’t know any better,” she told me. “I don’t think they really understood the impact it was going to have. They were victims themselves—of this father, the charges, and having to go through everything.”
In what might be the most enraging scenes in the documentary, Judge Pat Priest, who presided over the initial trials, refuses to exonerate the women—even after a key witness has said that she lied under oath and evidence that was used against them has been proved false. In a telling interaction, the judge skeptically questions a polygraph expert who has declared that there is no evidence of the women indulging in “deviant sexual behavior”—clearly signaling that he believes lesbianism itself is deviant.
The women’s fate is now in the hands of the nine judges of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Vasquez is no longer subject to sex offender restrictions, but the convictions are on all the women’s records and their lives are in limbo. “It’s hard to plan for the future,” Mayhugh told me. “I hesitate to get into a relationship, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. Am I going to go back to prison? I don’t want to put somebody through that. You want to purchase a vehicle, and you’re going to leave the bill with your family or leave it unpaid and come out to trouble with that.”
For Vasquez, the current situation is eerily familiar, an echo of the period between the seemingly absurd accusations and their eventual imprisonment.
“We’re hopeful,” she told me, “but it still doesn’t change the fact that I could go back. Look what happened in the beginning. We never thought that we would go to prison.”
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