Category Archives: Film/Cinema

Four Lesbians Were Wrongly Convicted of Child Abuse. Why Haven’t They Been Exonerated?

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.”

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Pioneer in innocence movement earns renewed recognition

Before author Erle Stanley Gardner and his Court of Last Resort, before Jim McCloskey and Centurion Ministries, before Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield and their Innocence Project, there was Herbert Maris, a Philadelphia corporate attorney who pioneered prisoner innocence advocacy from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Maris estimated that he freed almost 300 innocent convicts during his 40-year part-time career, but his work is largely forgotten today. The New York Daily News gives Maris his due in an article here.

OIP-u to Host Screenings of “The Syndrome” Across Ohio

 

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Next week, OIP-u–The Ohio Innocence Project’s undergraduate advocate network–will be hosting screenings of the award winning documentary The Syndrome at separate events across the state of Ohio. After each screening there will be a Q&A session with investigative journalist Susan Goldsmith who produced the film and Kathy Hyatt whose story is featured in the film. Admission is free, no registration required, 1 Credit CLE for Ohio and 2 CLE credits for Kentucky. See below for screening times and locations.

About The Syndrome

Director Meryl Goldsmith teams with Award-winning investigative reporter Susan Goldsmith to uncover the origins of the myth of SBS and t
he unimaginable nightmare for those accused. This provocative film strives to shine a light on the men and women dedicating their lives to defending the prosecuted and freeing the convicted. Taking a look at what is truly happening behind the curtain, The Syndrome has been called “an eye-opening hybrid of medical drama & courtroom thriller” and prompts one to wonder – what would happen if I faced the same fate?

The Syndrome is an explosive documentary following the crusade of a group of doctors, scientists, and legal scholars who have uncovered that “shaken baby syndrome,” a child abuse theory used in hundreds of US prosecutions each year, doesn’t exist.

To view the trailer for the film click here
Event dates, times and locations:

March 28, 2016 – Cincinnati, OH University of Cincinnati College of Law College of Law, Room 114 • 5:30-8 p.m. Hosted by OIP-u University of Cincinnati Chapter

March 29, 2016 – Cincinnati, OH Xavier University Cintas Center, Conference Room 4/5 • Noon-2:30 p.m. Hosted by OIP-u Xavier University Chapter

March 29, 2016 – Dayton, OH University of Dayton Miriam Hall, Room 119 • 5:30-8 p.m. Hosted by OIP-u University of Dayton Chapter

March 30, 2016 – Columbus, OH Ohio State University Saxbe Auditorium • 6-8:30 p.m. Hosted by OIP-u Ohio State University Chapter

March 31, 2016 – Cleveland, OH John Carroll University Dolan Center, Room 202/203 • 6-8:30 p.m. Hosted by OIP-u John Carroll University Chapter

April 1, 2016 – Athens, OH Ohio University Schoonover Hall, Room 145 • 5-7:30 p.m. Hosted by OIP-u Ohio University Chapter

 

 

 

Ireland: Inaugural International Wrongful Conviction Conference & Film Festival

The Irish Innocence Project, working since 2009 at Griffith College, has announced Ireland’s Inaugural International Wrongful Conviction Conference and Film Festival – to newlogo2be held 26th and 27th June 2015. They have also launched a crowd funding appeal: “Be the Key: Set an Innocent Free”, to help the college students to work on overturning wrongful convictions in Ireland.

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See more details of the  conference and film festival – with great speakers, and the crowd funding appeal here:

Inaugural International Wrongful Conviction Conference & Film Festival

Weekend Quick Clicks…

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

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  • The unintended consequences of compensating the exonerated
  • Canada’s system for reviewing alleged wrongful convictions “failing miserably”
  • West Virginia University Law Innocence Project pushes interrogation recording bill
  •  What does a record number of U.S. exonerations in 2013 tell us?
  • ESPN video on the wrongful accusation against Richard Jewel for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing
  • Ex-cop exonerated after 20 years in prison awarded $9 million
  • Mexican lawyers turned filmmakers win civil suit against them brought by family of victim in wrongful conviction case they exposed through the documentary Presumed Guilty
  • Planned changes in UK’s compensation laws for exonerees will make it nearly impossible to obtain compensation after wrongful conviction
  • New Zealand Innocence Project re-ignites debate about the need for a wrongful convictions commission
  • Idaho Innocence Project client Sarah Pearce may soon be released—settlement discussions ongoing

Lawyers Gather in Buenos Aires for Second Annual Latin America Innocence Conference

Attorneys gathered from all over Latin America for the Red Inocente!  Second Annual Latin American Innocence Conference last week in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Over a span of three days, Enrique Piñeyro, the Director of the newly established Innocence Project Argentina, graciously welcomed participants from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, México, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Puerto Rico.  The group included attorneys, law students, judges, academics, politicians, scientists, and members of the media.

Director of the Innocence Project Argentina, Enrique Piñeyro

Director of the Innocence Project Argentina, Enrique Piñeyro

Piñeyro, also an accomplished Argentine film director, hosted the conference and organized speakers on an array of topics. Attorneys spoke about evidentiary issues.  Experts spoke about the criminalization of the poverty in the Latin American jails and corruption in the judiciary.  California Innocence Project exoneree, Rafael Madrigal, spoke about the seven years he spent in prison after he was wrongly convicted for an attempted murder in Orange County, California.  Exoneree, Eric Volz from Nicaragua, also spoke on his international experience resulting from his wrongful murder conviction.  Both of these talks allowed people to hear about the real-life experiences of those unjustly sent to prison and illustrated why innocence work is so important throughout the world.

Director of the California Innocence Project, Justin Brooks

Director of the California Innocence Project, Justin Brooks

This conference was the second conference of its kind.  The first conference was held in 2012 in Santiago de Chile.  Since the conference in Chile, innocence projects have taken root in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Peru.  The directors of these projects, as well as the director of the already long-established project in Colombia, were able to speak to the group and relay the problems, challenges, and successes of their work in their respective countries.

Participants and speakers from Brazil, Unites States, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Argentina.

Participants and speakers from Brazil, Unites States, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Argentina.

Piñeyro also showcased his documentary, The Rati Horror Show, to demonstrate the corruption and serious problems of the Argentine judicial system.  The documentary was pivotal in the release of Fernando Carrera, who was convicted of murder because the police altered evidence at the scene of the crime and manipulated witness testimony.  Carrera, in an unexpected Argentina Supreme Court decision, was ordered back to prison when the Court denied the decision by the lower court to reverse his conviction.  Carrera’s attorneys also participated in a forum where participants were allowed to ask them questions about the judicial decisions and the facts surrounding the underlying conviction.

The Mexican documentary, Presunto Culpable, was also shown at the conference.  The film vividly illustrates the struggle to exonerate an innocent man in the deeply flawed Mexican justice system.

Directors of the established  projects from Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, and the United States.

Directors of the established projects from Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Chile, Nicaragua, Colombia, and the United States.

Red Inocente! hopes to organize a conference for Latin American innocence projects every year to continue to share information, experiences, and knowledge.  The conference will be held in Bogotá, Colombia in October of 2014.  Red Inocente! is a non-profit legal and education program designed to offer assistance to those who are trying to help secure the release of innocent prisoners in Latin America, promote legislative reforms to reduce the number of wrongful convictions, and offer information on latest developments in forensic science and law to the lawyers who litigate these cases.

Follow me on Twitter @justinobrooks

Professor Justin Brooks
Director, California Innocence Project
California Western School of Law
225 Cedar Street
San Diego, CA 92101
jpb@cwsl.edu
www.californiainnocenceproject.com

For more information, please visit the following websites:  www.redinocente.org, www.ipargentina.org.

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

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Monday’s Quick Clicks…

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  • The Manhattan district attorney will not reverse the conviction of a New York City man found guilty of killing a retired police officer during a botched 1998 robbery in Harlem, saying its re-investigation of the high-profile case found no evidence to warrant tossing the verdict. Defense attorneys called the decision “unjust” and a “tragedy” and vowed to continue their fight to free the man.  Jon-Adrian “J.J.” Velazquez was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life for the shooting death of Albert Ward at the illegal numbers parlor the former NYPD officer operated.
  • A review of the film L’Affaire Dumont, about a wrongful conviction in Canada
  • Alabama set to pardon Scottsboro Boys
  • In Arizona, Louis Taylor experiences shock upon release and looks forward to starting his new life
  • After 30 years, Jeffrey MacDonald, who was notoriously convicted of murdering his family, may be freed from prison. A celebrated filmmaker explains why he believes in MacDonald’s innocence.
  • Bill in Pennsylvania to compensate the wrongfully convicted

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

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Friday’s Quick Clicks…

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  • Mississippi Innocence Project close to solving cold murder case that authorities have not been able to solve
  • Documentary film raises awareness of wrongful convictions in the Philippines
  • William Lopez freed in NYC after federal judge throws out conviction, saying case was “rotten from Day 1.”
  • Review of documentary film West of Memphis
  • Bennett Barbour was exonerated in Virginia and then died of cancer before he could be compensated, leaving family with unpaid legal bills; now a bill is pending to compensate the family
  • Review of play Innocence Lost
  • Duke Innocence Project seeks to exonerate Charles Ray Finch

Vigilante justice goes high-tech in Ohio

Emotions often run high in criminal cases, and the higher they run the greater the likelihood that a defendant may be wrongly convicted.

History is replete with news-media fueled hysteria leading to false allegations and convictions. The 1915 lynching is Leo Frank is one early example. More recently, we saw that in 1989 wrongful convictions explored in the searing new Ken Burns documentary, The Central Park Five, and in the false rape charges filed against three members of the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006.

Another possible injustice is currently unfolding in the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case of two members of the popular Steubenville High School football team. The alleged alcohol-fueled rape of an unconscious 16-year-old girl at a party while other boys supposedly watched and did nothing, has set off an international firestorm.

What makes the media conflagration different in this case is that it has been fueled by bloggers and hackers who contend that other boys should be charged and that authorities are trying to cover up other wrongdoing by people associated with the football team.

Contrary to the narrative perpetrated in the cybersphere, law enforcement was not dismissive of the allegations. The alleged rape occurred on August 11. The girl’s mother reported it to police on August 14. Charges were filed on August 27, the same day that local authorities requested the assistance of the Ohio attorney general’s office for additional investigation.

But that wasn’t good enough for some, particularly a purported local member of the international hacker collective Anonymous who calls himself K.Y.

K.Y. has released a lot of information (and some misinformation) on his LocalLeaks web site. He also has threatened to release the social security numbers and other personal information of people he believes have information on the rape if they don’t come forward.

While some of the information K.Y. has thus-far released might be helpful, much of it seems to be fueled by personal animosity and to have been obtained illegally. (Like some cops and prosecutors, K.Y. apparently feels it’s OK to break the law to make others pay a price for breaking the law.)

This is a new frontier in media-fueled rushes to judgment. While some, including Erika Christakis have expressed concern about this new form of vigilante justice, many in the traditional media have followed the social media’s lead.

What makes this particularly frightening is the instant worldwide distribution via social media of unproven allegations by a masked man who doesn’t mind destroying the reputations of teenagers who may have had nothing to do with the rape in question.

To anyone who cares about justice and the rights of the accused to a fair trial, CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman’s interview with K.Y. should be a cause concern. ”We aren’t the judge nor the jury, but it’s fair to say we are the executioner,” K.Y. said of Anonymous. The hacker added that, because some of the people have ”incriminated themselves” in online tweets and postings, there is no real need to wait for the courts to decide on their guilt or innocence. ”If you think they are guilty, that’s because your conscience is telling you they are guilty,” K.Y. said. Case closed.

Trials often lead to unjust results, particularly in emotionally charged cases. But trials sure beat having the accused subjected to a high-tech lynching by a self-anointed ”executioner” hiding behind a Guy Fawkes mask.

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Wensday’s Quick Clicks…

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Posthumous pardon sought for a pair of wrongfully convicted Boston men, Henry Tameleo and Louie Greco, who were among a group of Italian-Americans wrongfully convicted of murder amid a FBI set-up in 1968 involving members of the Boston mob and convicted federal agent John Connolly.
  • After more than 15 years behind bars, East Texas man Kenneth Boyd, Jr. is set to be released from prison following the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that he was wrongfully convicted of a triple homicide in Shelby County.
  • Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to join cast of The Exonerated
  • A review of the film The Central Park 5

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Article and performance video of The Exoneree Band
  • Yesterday, the Northern California Innocence Project hosted exoneree Gloria Killian, co-author of “Full Circle, A True Story of Murder, Lies and Vindication” at its Breakfast Briefing series. Killian gave a presentation to 70 attendees detailing her wrongful conviction for murder and robbery, the result of what a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge referred to as one of the worst cases of prosecutorial misconduct he had ever seen. A third-year law student at the time of her arrest, Killian spent 17 years in prison. While imprisoned she became a zealous advocate for victims of domestic violence serving sentences for killing their batterers. Killian’s legal work assisted many women, and she was instrumental in helping create a USC law clinic devoted to assisting women in prison. Released ten years ago, Killian has continued to advocate tirelessly for incarcerated women and to shed light into the particular systemic injustices perpetrated in women’s prisons. Beginning in Fall 2013, Killian will re-enter law school at the University of La Verne on a full scholarship.
  • The film West of Memphis helps draw attention to the plight of the West Memphis 3
  • Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions files DNA testing application in the Illinois murder case of defendant Johnny Lee Savory
  • Dallas exoneree Claude Simmons arrested on a drug charge
  • The Innocence Project concerned there may be many more innocent prisoners who were victims of misconduct by St. Louis police department

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…