In 1994, four lesbian women in San Antonio, Texas, were convicted of sexually assaulting two girls ages seven and nine. Three of the women — Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh — were sentenced to 15 years in prison. Elizabeth Ramirez, the aunt of the alleged victims, got 37.5 years. Vasquez, Rivera, Mayhugh, and Ramirez came to be known as the San Antonio Four, and their conviction came at the tail end of the satanic-ritual abuse panic in the late ’80s and early ’90s. All four women were convicted based solely on testimony from the two children and medical evidence (which later turned out to be scientifically flawed) proffered by a pediatrician. All four maintain their innocence to this day, and although the state of Texas has granted them the right to new trials, they’re still fighting for exoneration.
In Southwest of Salem, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Friday, director Deborah Esquenazi introduces each of the San Antonio Four and tracks the gradual unraveling of the evidence against them. The documentary, which is also Esquenazi’s first feature-length film, spins the story into a true-crime narrative that’s as emotional as it is infuriating. As Mike Ware, an attorney for the Innocence Project of Texas puts it in the film, “if people only knew how little truth and justice had to do with the legal system, they’d probably storm courthouses with lighted torches.”
In lieu of torches, we spoke to Esquenazi just after the premiere about criminal justice reform, the sudden popularity of true-crime narratives, and how she became interested in the story of the San Antonio Four.
What drew you to the story of these four women in the first place?
I got a call from my mentor, a woman named Debbie Nathan, who said, “You should look into this.” So I read I read Liz’s trial transcripts, and they were horrific. They included phrases like “gang rape,” “cult-type activity,” “a certain perversion,” and it was all very sexualized. When I finished reading, I was broken.
Then she sent me a VHS tape that they had recorded on their search for exculpatory evidence, and I was like, oh my God, this is a story not just about injustice but about a family torn apart. It really hit home for me because at the time I was also in the process of coming out — I didn’t come out until I was 33 — and Debbie said to me, “This could be you.”
So you went to meet them?
Yes — I met Anna Vasquez first, and I was stunned. She’s so powerful on screen; imagine if you had seen that in a prison. Then I did interviews with Liz and Cass, and after that, I mean you can’t let it go. If you meet people like that, you have to do something.
But you’d never made a feature-length film before, correct?
I’d made many shorts, but never a full-length film. I really wanted to do it as a radio piece, but no one wanted it. At one point it was going to be a short film for Texas Monthly, but again, it didn’t pan out. It was really hard to get funding. But something happened after we released the footage [of one of Liz’s nieces recanting her testimony in 2012]. I caught her reaction on tape, and I thought, “This is a reason for people to start giving a shit.” So I released it to the local press, and I found myself in the middle of the story.
That sort of reminds me of what happened with Serial when one woman contacted a journalist with evidence of a botched trial. Do you think enthusiasm for the film had anything to do with the momentum behind things like Serial and Making a Murderer and people becoming invested in these kinds of stories?
I do think we’re in the middle of an important questioning of criminal justice right now. I don’t think it should just be about policing — we also have to investigate prosecutions and juries and the way people frame stories in a courtroom because all of that is part of the narrative of criminal justice in America. So I do feel like this film is part of a zeitgeist.
Speaking of enthusiasm, the women were incredibly well-received at the screening tonight.
Getting them here was such a pain!
They can’t leave beyond 75 miles of their homes in San Antonio, so every time they travel the Innocence Project of Texas has to, has to file a series of court orders, and then they have to be cleared. So we cleared them for Tribeca, but we’re going to Hot Docs in Canada after this, and we just found out that because of their convictions Canada won’t let them in.
What has it been like to advocate for these women and to see them fighting for exoneration now?
I love these women. I’ve come to think of them as my family because I was there in November 2012 when Anna was released, and I was there a year later when the other three were released. The power of those women is such that when they speak their truth, they mobilize others. I don’t know what they’ve learned or what they’ve grown in their souls, but when they advocate for themselves, they’re incredibly powerful.
It’s also a testament to the power of film. I started to do screenings of unedited footage because I wanted to get them out of prison, and we went from 30 people in one of those screenings to 250 people. The film gave a voice to the women, and when people were in that screening room, they had to listen.