THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


The San Antonio Four Fight for Innocence

Navigating racism, sexism, homophobia, and wrongful conviction in Texas

by Zack Kligler

Illustration by Pia Mileaf-Patel

published October 7, 2016


Content warning: sexual assault

 

 

Anna Vasquez sits in the living room of her mother’s San Antonio home. The walls are wood-paneled and covered with family photos and other memorabilia: a birth announcement, a diploma, one shot of Vasquez in cap and gown, one in a high school basketball uniform. The video, taken on a hand held camera by a reporter for the San Antonio Current, resembles a home movie. The low hum of an air conditioner drones in the background as Vasquez begins to speak. She reads from a small black journal in her hands. “Dear Diary,” begins the entry, “Why did they do this to me? Where did the lies come from?” Vasquez had written this entry several months earlier, while confined in a Texas prison on charges of child sexual assault. 

In 1997, Vasquez, then 22, along with her close friends Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassie Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh, was tried and convicted of sexually assaulting Ramirez’s sevenand nine-year-old nieces. All four women are Latina and identify as lesbians, and their trial was wrought with racism, homophobia, and sexism. Despite inconsistent testimony from the alleged victims and dubious forensic evidence, all four women were convicted. Three received 15-year sentences. Ramirez, deemed the leader of the group, was sentenced to 37 and a half years.

The case of the San Antonio Four (as they have been dubbed by advocates in the press) is both a personal tragedy for these women, and a representative parable for greater axes of disadvantage and oppression. These four women stand at the intersection of several identities routinely and systematically targeted within the criminal justice system. Both the US and Texas prison population vastly over-represent Latinx people. Meanwhile, the percentage of LGBT+ prisoners is more than double the LGBT+ percentage of the national population, and rates of incarceration for women have increased over the past 30 years at double the speed of those for men. The US criminal justice system functions to criminalize and imprison queer Latinx women based largely on those identities alone, and does so today more effectively than ever. Standing amongst the most vulnerable to persecution, the San Antonio Four have spent two decades pushing for justice. Now, they stand at the verge of proving their innocence.

 

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Nearly twenty years after the original trial, the case of the San Antonio Four is finally being revisited. In September an award-winning documentary about the case entitled Southwest of Salem went under limited release across the country and internationally. The Four are using this publicity to drum up national support for exoneration with public appearances and a social media campaign. Even after a second hearing, however, the women still hang in legal limbo, released from prison on bond but technically guilty of a crime they did not commit, with no retrial on the horizon. 

22 years ago Ramirez, Rivera, Vasquez, and Mayhugh lived lives of relative working-class normalcy. Vasquez balanced several jobs and, when she could, found time to spend with Rivera, her girlfriend at the time, and Rivera’s two young children. Vasquez and Rivera had met in the pizza shop where Vasquez was working, and within a few months they were living together and raising Rivera’s children. Like many queer people, the two women had constructed their own second family after being rejected by many of their relatives. In Vasquez and Rivera’s case, this family included Ramirez and Mayhugh. Vasquez had been good friends with Ramirez in high school, and Rivera had lived in Mayhugh and Ramirez’s apartment briefly after her mother kicked her out of their house. In an interview conducted for the documentary, Vasquez described Ramirez’s place as “a home away from home.” The four women made up an inseparable unit.

Southwest of Salem, directed by Deborah S. Esquenazi, boomerangs between this reality and the bleak truth of the women’s incarceration. The first comes to us in home-movie clips, birthdays and family dinners, movie nights and trips to the beach, snippets of everyday memory. The second comes in the form of stark, often tearful 2014 interviews with each of the four women, after nearly 15 years of incarceration. Esquenazi, who is a Cuban-American lesbian, explained that it was more than a simple interest in the case that made her want to take up this story. She had come out of the closet just a few weeks before she first heard about the San Antonio Four. “I was struggling with painful anxiety and bouts of depression,” Esquenazi explained in her press statement. “But seeing the strength of these amazing women living their truths, even as I visited them behind bars in various maximum security Texas prisons, I was prompted to examine my own life.” Esquenazi resolved to tell the story of these women as vividly as possible.

For Ramirez, this story began on a September day in 1994, when a homicide detective knocked on the door of her apartment and asked her to come with him to answer a few questions. A month earlier, Ramirez’s two young nieces had come to stay in her apartment, an occasional treat granted them by their father, Javier Limon, who had previously separated with Ramirez’s sister. The week passed like any other spent among family and friends, with Ramirez and her friends juggling shifts at their various jobs and taking turns watching and entertaining the two girls, taking them swimming and to play basketball at a nearby park. Now, Limon was claiming the girls had confessed that their aunt and her friends had sexually assaulted them during that week in August.

Ramirez explained in an interview for Southwest of Salem that Javier Limon had been obsessed with her since she was in high school, while he was still with her sister. He would write Ramirez love letters, call incessantly, and even propose to her. She rebuffed his advances, and he soon grew bitter at her disinterest. Limon also disapproved of her sexuality. Ramirez and her lawyers ultimately argued that Limon had fabricated the accusations of sexual assault to get revenge. These were not the only false accusations Limon had used to control or punish women. After splitting with Ramirez’s sister, Limon had dated another woman. When they broke up, he accused her son of sexually assaulting one of his daughters and lodged a complaint against her with Child Protective Services. He would later use similar threats of false accusations against his own daughter.

What followed over the next days, months, and years was a whirlwind of accusations, questioning, confusion, and anxiety for the four women. Finally, in 1997, Ramirez’s case came to trial. During this interval she had had her first child, and knew that she stood to lose him if the trial didn’t go her way. Rivera, Vasquez, and Mayhugh were tried together one year later.

From the first days of the investigation through the final hours of the second trial, the San Antonio Four faced homophobic and sexist bias at every turn. In their first interview with Ramirez, and in other later sessions, the police sought several times to confirm each woman’s sexuality. Ramirez was later subjected to the same obsessive questioning by the prosecutor at her trial, Philip Kazen. In one line of questioning Kazen asked Ramirez about whether she had had a sexual relationship with each of her friends, when Ramirez said she hadn’t, Kazen proceeded “Well you were gay and they were gay.…” Ramirez interrupted, “That doesn’t mean you have to be together.” This sexualization and fetishization of queer women served its purpose in profiling four lesbians as ‘natural’ suspects for pedophilia.

The prosecution team also took advantage of bias against the women in another, subtler way. Throughout the 80s and into the 90s, a wave of accusations of ‘Satanic ritual abuse’ emerged across the country. Satanic ritual abuse was generally said to consist of sexual abuse of children involving strange, cult-like practices. Many of those accused were queer and were convicted on hardly any evidence other than the testimonies of children. Over the two decades since this national craze died down, these accusations and many of the methods used to investigate them were completely discredited. Throughout Ramirez’s trial, Kazen invoked the language and imagery of Satanic ritual abuse to describe the alleged assault, saying the two girls had been “sacrificed on the altar of lust” and accusing Ramirez of holding up her niece “as a sacrificial lamb” to the others. A local paper reported that Kazen accused Ramirez of being “evil” and “wicked” in his closing remarks. The doctor who examined the girls and testified that there was evidence of abuse wrote in her notes that the incident may have been “Satanic-related,” and spoke to investigators about her concern.

Ultimately, Ramirez was sentenced to 37 and a half years in prison. The other three women were offered plea deals of 10 years probation, but none would consider admitting to a crime they hadn’t committed. The case went to trial, and each received a 15-year sentence.

 

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Even while incarcerated, the San Antonio Four fought to prove their innocence. Ramirez wrote letter after letter to activists, TV hosts, and anyone else she thought might listen. Eventually, the women gained an unlikely advocate. Darrell Otto was a dogsledder and teacher at a small college in the Yukon Territory of northern Canada. After exchanging several letters with Ramirez, Otto reached out to Debbie Nathan, a journalist, activist, and one of the leading scholars working to debunk Satanic ritual abuse and exonerate those falsely accused. Nathan was working with the National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ), an organization that advocates for people wrongfully convicted of crimes against children, many of whom were accused of Satanic ritual abuse. The NCRJ in turn contacted the Innocence Project of Texas, which took up the case. Meanwhile, Nathan reached out to Esquenazi, a former student and documentary filmmaker, who soon began work on what would become Southwest of Salem.

As the Four’s team of advocates slowly grew, so did the evidence for their exoneration. In 2007 a study was published discrediting the forensic evidence used against the women at trial. Then, in 2010, came a breakthrough. One of the alleged victims of the attack, seven years old at the time but now well into her 20s with a child of her own, officially recanted her testimony, saying her father had forced her to testify and used threats to keep her quiet ever since. By 2012, Vasquez was released on parole, but was required to register as a sex offender. By 2013, the women’s lawyers managed to get them released on bond. The documentary team captured the women reuniting with their families. Ramirez’s son, two years old at the time of her incarceration, was now 18. Rivera had become a grandmother while behind bars and was able to kiss her granddaughter for the first time. Finally in 2015, after nearly two decades of waiting, the San Antonio Four received a hearing. Yet despite the women’s ability to refute nearly every piece of evidence against them, the judge recommended a retrial but claimed there was not enough evidence to exonerate the Four. This second trial has no date, and if there is no public pressure for exoneration the Four may never win their innocence. The women and their advocates are now attempting to launch a national campaign to pressure San Antonio District Attorney Nico LaHood to declare the Four’s innocence and seek a trial date. This battle will be waged both on social media (the documentary website asks supporters to voice their demands for a retrial on Twitter and Facebook) and in the press through statements and public appearances.

The case of the San Antonio Four stands intimately connected with larger national trends. One in four trans or genderqueer Latinx people will be incarcerated at some point in their life. Once in prison, queer people of color are among the most likely to experience abuse and sexual assault. In 2015, 18% of heterosexual prisoners had been subjected to solitary confinement in the past year, compared to over a quarter of queer prisoners. Anna Vasquez was one of those prisoners, placed in solitary for nearly a month for refusing to take part in sexual predator recovery training. 2015 was a record year for wrongful conviction exonerations, with 149 cases. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Texas has the highest level of exonerations for wrongful convictions in the country, with 286 exonerations since 1989, and a total of 1,646 years of life lost to wrongful incarceration. Women seem to have borne the brunt of this trend, representing 16% of exonerated wrongful convictions but only 8% of the Texas prison population.

This spike has been accompanied by a recent spate of pop-cultural obsessions with cases of the wrongfully convicted. In 2015, Serial, a podcast examining the possible wrongful conviction of Baltimore teenager Adnan Syed in the murder of his ex-girlfriend, became a national sensation and ultimately helped Syed earn a new trial. Soon afterwards, Netflix released the true-crime documentary series Making a Murderer, which dove into the wrongful sexual assault conviction and potential framing of Wisconsin man Steven Avery. The show was so successful that President Obama was forced to clarify that he had no authority in the case and could not intervene on Avery’s behalf.

While Southwest of Salem wasn’t the cause of the San Antonio Four’s release, Esquenazi has been deeply involved in marshaling public support for the women. During the making of the film, the team held more than a dozen work-in-progress screenings across Texas over the course of two years. 

While the San Antonio Four and the Southwest of Salem documentary team are making an effort to capitalize on the current cultural trend of true-crime and wrongful conviction stories, they seem to face additional roadblocks on their way to the national spotlight. Although Southwest of Salem was released to critical acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the case of the San Antonio Four has gained some publicity within activist and queer communities, the women and their advocates have struggled to gain traction in more mainstream national media. Significantly, the recent spate of highly publicized wrongful convictions has been almost entirely focused on cases involving men, and it seems the San Antonio Four may face an additional gulf in trying to focus national media attention on the plight of queer women of color in particular. This may all change next week when Southwest of Salem gains its widest audience yet. The Investigation Discovery network is slated to premiere the documentary to a global audience on October 15. This marks a level of publicity that both the Four and Esquenazi wouldn’t have dreamed of a few years ago, and it may well be enough to gain the women the kind of national outcry they need.

The story of the San Antonio Four has already been told and retold dozens of times, by press reports and court documents, prison statistics and home videos. What has emerged is a vivid tale of how these women represent some of those most victimized by our prison system, and the ways in which they have fought for two decades against a system that criminalizes and silences them and thousands of others. But the tale is best told in Anna Vasquez’s own words to a local newscaster who asked her bluntly in a 2012 interview, “who are you?”

Vasquez responded, “I am an innocent woman, fighting to finally show the truth.”

 

ZACK KLIGLER B'20 thinks it's time to #FreetheSA4