“Southwest of Salem” looks at the unjust imprisonment of four Latina lesbians

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Out director Deborah S. Esquenazi’s Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four will undoubtedly make you mad, and that’s a good thing. This documentary about the cruelest of injustices demands a response and presently still needs one.

So who are the San Antonio Four? Friends and Latina lesbians Elizabeth “Liz” Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra “Cassie” Rivera and Anna Vasquez. And just what makes their story so remarkable? The fact that they fell victim to the last gasp of the “Satanic panic” that ran wild in the American legal system in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That panic disproportionately targeted homosexuals, and this was certainly a factor in the trials of these four women.

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It all started in 1994. Kristie was living with Liz, although the two were no longer a couple at this point. But Cassie and Anna were and had been visiting with their friends. On this particular week, however, Liz had her two nieces, aged seven and nine, over. Life continued as normal until a couple of months later allegations were made that the four women had gang raped the little girls. All four women have always denied this.

No one wanted to believe these allegations would go anywhere, least of all Cassie and Anna, who had been together for years and were raising Cassie’s kids together. That’s not to mention how young they all were: Kristie was 21 at the time and Liz, Anna and Cassie were only 19. But about two years after the allegations were made, the first trial commenced.

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Liz’s case went to trial in 1997. The prosecution had positioned her as the ringleader, even though there was plenty of evidence to suggest that the girls’ father, Javier, was infatuated with her (despite having been married to her sister) and pitted his children against her when she wouldn’t return his affections. In a trial marred with homophobia and accusations of satanic rituals, Liz would see herself sentenced to 37 and a half years in prison. This also meant she would be taken away from her infant son, who was born in the midst of these allegations.

The other three women would go to trial together under similar circumstances in 1998 and were handed down the same sentence: 15 years in prison. They were sent to separate jails in 2000, with Liz having already started her sentence the year before.

Believe it or not, that was basically it until 2006. It was only then that someone took interest in the women’s case, and in the Yukon of all places. Canadian researcher Darrell Otto was researching female sex offenders when he looked into the San Antonio case and determined that it simply did not fit the pattern for these types of offenses. After communicating with Liz, Darrell reached out to the National Center for Reason and Justice, which investigates false allegations of child abuse. Debbie Nathan is part of the group and began working on the women’s case. Nathan is also Esquenazi’s mentor and tipped her off to the story of the San Antonio Four.

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Nathan ended up contacting the Innocence Project of Texas in 2010 and soon after they took up the women’s case. Remarkably, it wouldn’t take long for them to catch their big break. In August 2012, Stephanie, the youngest of the girls, came forward and said her father and grandmother had coached her and her sister on what to say and that she now wanted to recant. Esquenazi filmed Stephanie’s disclosure and leaked it to the press. More great news followed in November when Anna was released early on parole and could then speak out publicly on behalf of herself and the other women.

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Armed with Stephanie’s recantation and a new Texas law that allowed prisoners to contest convictions based on outdated forensic science, which proved to be the case in regards to the pediatrician who evaluated the physical evidence in the women’s trials, the Innocence Project pressed forward. The pediatrician who had once written that the alleged crime “could be Satanic-related” now admitted that new findings proved her original assessment had been inaccurate.

Following all this, Liz, Kristie and Cassie were released on bail or bond in November 2013. Seeing them reunite with their families is one of the most touching moments in the film, as is seeing how close they all remain. Despite not being able to contact each other while in prison, their common bond draws them together. It’s particularly moving for Liz, who held onto a lot of guilt for the other women’s arrests.

But the system had one more blow to hand out. Just when all signs indicated the women would be exonerated, the judge, who under Texas law had to be the one that presided over the original trials, ordered a new trial instead. That was only this past  February. Now the case awaits appeal to the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, which is the women’s last chance for exoneration.

Their lawyer, Mike Ware, was in attendance for a recent screening of the film in Toronto. He told the audience he expects the case will be dismissed. Of course, the publicity generated by this film could go a long way to finally getting these women the justice they’ve been seeking for so long.

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That’s just one of the reasons why Southwest of Salem is so impressive. Another is how incredibly intimate it is despite all the legal jargon and barriers to access that could have weighed it down. Instead, we witness emotional interviews, touching family interactions and so much more throughout the film. And surprisingly, Esquenazi somehow convinced Javier and the girls’ grandmother to appear on camera separately. That said if there’s one complaint to be made it’s that the prosecution and their experts didn’t get their say. 

But that does little to take away from the quality of this film, which literally functions as a call to action on behalf of these women and others that have faced similar injustices. It remains to be seen what that will ultimately look like.

Southwest of Salem has just hit the festival circuit. Visit the movie’s website for news on future screenings.

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