SA4 Documentary to Screen at Tribeca Film Fest

Documentary director Deborah S. Esquenazi (center) with the San Antonio Four Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera, Liz Ramirez and Kristie Mayhugh. (Photo: Facebook / Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four)

A documentary about the trial and long-term imprisonment of four San Antonio Latina lesbians, who in 1994 were falsely accused of sexually abusing two pre-teen girls, will make its world premier at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 13.

The film, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, directed by Deborah S. Esquenazi, follows the case of Anna Vasquez, Liz Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh, who were convicted in 1997-98 of abusing two girls, then 7 and 9-years-old,  both nieces of Ramirez.

Known nationwide as the San Antonio Four, all were sentenced to long prison terms; Ramirez to 37-and-a-half years, the others drew 15-year sentences.

A Tribeca Film Festival article about Esquenazi says:

In Southwest of Salem, Esquenazi, a rookie filmmaker with past experience as a journalist and radio producer, gives the “San Antonio Four” the chance to proclaim their innocence while painting a disturbing and maddening picture of seemingly non-guilty victims being dominated by police and courtroom biases. Not unlike Netflix’s recent true crime phenomenon Making a Murderer, Southwest of Salem leaves its viewers furious about the criminal justice system’s ability to manipulate the truth to its own liking.

In 2012, one of the victims publicly recanted her allegations about the four women. Not long after, Susan Reed, the Bexar County district attorney at the time, released Vasquez on bail after she had already served 13 years of her 15-year sentence. The others were released on bail in November 2013.

San Antonio Four press conference organized by Esperanza Peace & Justice Center in November 2013. (Photo: Esperanza Center)

San Antonio Four press conference organized by Esperanza Peace & Justice Center in November 2013. (Photo: Esperanza Center)

According to a report in the San Antonio Express-News, “The decision to release the three women now wasn’t surprising because District Attorney Susan Reed and the women’s defense team had already agreed to the terms of the release. Their case will now wind its way through the court system, which could take years, while they remain free.”

The campaign to free the women was started by author and journalist Debbie Nathan, a board member for the National Center for Reason and Justice, who reviewed the trial record and case files – which contain a sensational reference to Satanism—and concluded the women were wrongly convicted.

The NCRJ was first to uncover the role of junk science in the case and got lawyers Jeff Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas along with IPTX board member Michael Ware of Fort Worth, and Keith S. Hampton of Austin, to take up the legal fight.

A February 2016 article in Prison Legal News reports that “San Antonio, Texas judge [Pat Priest] is considering what he will recommend to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after hearing testimony . . .  [he] will determine whether all four should be formally exonerated . . . There are no deadlines for Judge Priest to make his recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, or for the appellate court to rule on the women’s petition to have their convictions overturned.”

Tribeca premier events

The premier of the documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival will coincide with an April 13 panel discussion on moral panics, “stranger danger”, wrongful convictions, harsh punishments, prison conditions, sex offender registries.

Nathan and three of the San Antonio Four, Vasquez, Ramirez and Rivera, will sit on the panel, The “San Antonio 4”: Homophobia, Hysteria, and Wrongful Convictions. Attorney Ware will join the discussion, laying out the next legal steps for the women.

According the a press announcement for the event: “San Antonio 4 members . . . will talk about being falsely accused of what, to the public, is the worst crime imaginable, and the impact of being viewed as monsters by the world. ”



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