I spoke to the San Antonio Four, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez,on June 20, 2016, it was the afternoon before their film, SOUTHWEST OF SALEM screened at the 40th Annual Frameline Festival. When they and director Deborah S. Esquenazi and producer Sam Tabet appeared on stage after that screening, it was to a five-minute standing ovation. I’m sure it was not just for the ordeal that they are still living through, but also for the way that they have not let bitterness take over their lives. Of all the things I took away from our conversation, that was what struck me most. Convicted of a heinous crime that never took place, the four spent years in prison before The Innocence Project, and one of its attorneys, Mike Ward, took up their case. Released when the physical evidence was discredited and one of the accusers recanted, they are still waiting for the justice system to determine whether or not they will be fully exonerated, be retried, or sent back to prison.
In an interview that reduced us to tears at times, they spoke about how they have coped since their nightmare began in 1994, what it was like to wake up on their first morning of freedom knowing they would not have to put on prison whites again, and where they find the capacity to forgive.
SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR, the powerful and disturbing documentary about truth, perception, and the role of both in the criminal justice system tells the story of Ramirez, Rivera, Mayhugh, and Vasquez, four Latinas convicted of a horrendous crime involving child rape, and whose identity as out lesbians putatively played as much of a role in the jury’s decision against them as any of evidence. That one of the women is the aunt of the two children making the charges all the more nightmarish. Told with interviews with the subjects, their families, their lawyers, and the spurned would-be lover who may have been at the center of the accusations, a story with eerie similarities to the eponymous Salem witch trials emerge, and calls into question expert testimony and the validity of the concept of a trial by a jury of one’s peers. Esquenazi’s previous work includes Isaiah’s Children and Through the Negev.