“We thought it was going to be a cakewalk.”
“Southwest of Salem” director Deborah S. Esquenazi had planned to end her documentary with the happy exoneration of the San Antonio Four. Unfortunately, the case is still ongoing, despite mounting evidence of injustice.
In 1994, four Latina lesbian women — Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez — were wrongfully accused of gang-raping two little girls in San Antonio. The accused were released from prison when one of the girls recanted, and some of the forensic evidence were debunked in 2012 and 2013. The women have yet to be exonerated, though, and their freedoms are still curtailed.
Esquenazi filmed the hearings for ID’s documentary “Southwest of Salem” and felt that the evidence was presented “so meticulously” that the four women’s innocence would be apparent. “But the hours passed, and the judge got more ornery,” she said at the Television Critics Association panel for the film on Monday. “I told them, ‘This is the end. It does not look good.’”
Trying to decide when to end filming was a difficult decision at that point. “That preoccupied me a lot,” she said. Eventually she decided to just take her film and launch it. “Hopefully the audience will mobilize with us.”
The San Antonio Four are counting on that audience as well. Maintaining their innocence throughout, the women never wavered even if that meant turning down plea deals or having to register as sex offenders. The women were visibly emotional while speaking of the sacrifices they’ve made and the losses they’re still enduring because of the case.
“It really is a Catch-22,” Vasquez said. “I did not participate in the sexual predator program… and when I was released, I was put on the sex offender list for two years of my life. It was very difficult to take that path… but I became [the other women’s] voice” while the rest were still in prison.
Even though all four women are out of prison now, they are far from free. Not only are their records tainted for any employer to see, but even moving around is a process. “We still have to report to a judge to be able to travel, even to be here [on the panel] today,” Ramirez said. “The judge has to sign off on it. We can’t leave 75 miles out of San Antonio. Every day is difficult still.”
The case is currently under review at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. A date for the hearing has yet to be set.
“Southwest of Salem” will appear in theaters on Sept. 14 and then will premiere exclusively on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 8pm on Investigation Discovery. Innocence Project has also set up a website on how to help the San Antonio Four with their battle for exoneration.