In 1998, four young San Antonio women were sentenced to 82.5 years in prison between them, on accusations that didn’t even rise to the level of baseless. They were targeted because the four of them were lesbians, and even in the late 1990s, lesbianism was a threatening proposition, all too readily linked to pedophilia and Satanism. As eye-opening a case of injustice as the popular West Memphis Three documentaries and the Making a Murderer docuseries, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four lays bare how our justice system can often be an instrument of oppression, rather than one of truth and justice.
In 1994, Anna Vazquez, Elizabeth “Liz” Ramirez, Cassandra “Cassie” Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh were all good friends who relied on each other in San Antonio, Texas. Anna and Cassie were partners, but all four would hang out at Liz’s house. Liz’s two young nieces, ages 7 and 9 years old at the time, stayed with their aunt for one week. The girls’ father, Javier, who was divorced from Liz’s sister, had made his affection for Liz known. However, she refused him. The film posits her rejection as the motive for Javier to coach his young, impressionable daughters to make up a lie that Aunt Liz and her three lesbian friends had gang-raped them.
There is some footage of the trial, but unlike Making a Murderer, in which the accused Steven Avery had the money to hire two competent lawyers, the San Antonio Four had meager funds for their defense, and so there wasn’t much of a trial to chronicle. The prosecution’s case was largely built on the testimony of Liz’s young nieces, as well as the testimony of the state’s medical expert, which, in time, would be contradicted. The prosecutor, meanwhile, took the conjecture of ritualized sexual assault and ran with it.
After this mockery of a trial, Liz received 37.5 years, while her three friends each got 15. Liz entered prison in 1997, while from 1998 to 2000, Anna, Cassie, and Kristie appealed. Ultimately, they were denied, and warrants were issued for their arrests, so they decided to turn themselves in rather than making a run for it. The moment in which they surrendered themselves was recorded, and viewers can see how extremely hard it was for the women; but at the same time, they knew that running would only appear to corroborate their guilt.
From 2000 to 2007, their case was largely forgotten as they languished in prison. Then in 2008, an eccentric Canadian professor named Darrell Otto noticed something strange about their case and began contacting them to assess their innocence. He became convinced that it was an utter absurdity, published a 2009 article on their behalf in Texas Monthly, and began running the site fourliveslost.com. This got the ball rolling, and their previously overlooked matter now had the attention of the Innocence Project of Texas, which threw considerable resources and expertise into it.
There are interviews with advocates and experts from the Innocence Project, as well as others connected to the women’s ongoing saga. Some of the more powerful moments include one of Liz’s nieces, now all grown up, recanting her earlier testimony on camera. Through it all, Liz’s former brother-in-law continues to loom as a villain, despite his denial that he coached his daughters or tried to use them as weapons of revenge.
Similarly questionable is Judge Pat Priest, who presided over both the initial trial as well as the women’s request for exoneration. Without the latter, they cannot receive reimbursement from the state for years of lost earnings, and the film makes the sobering point that although Judge Priest could exonerate the women, doing so would be an admission that the initial trial was a travesty of justice. After 10 months of considering their request, Priest denies it.
Yet the San Antonio Four’s story is far from over. Hopefully, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four will be widely seen as they continue fighting for exoneration, since they might have a much better chance of success if their case grabs hold of the public’s attention.