Film Review: Southwest of Salem at Outfest

In the spring of 1994, few could have predicted the terrible lies, murders, and misuse of justice that was about to take place.  A small group of young girls from Salem Village in colonial Massachusetts claimed to be cursed, accusing local women of engaging in witchcraft and devil worship.  Hysteria about satanic worship began to sweep through the region, resulting in bogus trials and the execution of several innocent women over the months that would soon follow.  Fortunately, by September of that same year, people started to come to their senses.

Southwest of Salem

Deborah S. Esquenazi’s documentary, Southwest of Salem, is a riveting true-life crime drama.  Much like the witch trials of 1692, this is a crime story where the only crime committed was in the court of public opinion, leaving four innocent Texas women to pay for transgressions they never committed.  However, it would be much longer before people would finally come to their senses in this case.

Known as the “San Antonio Four,” Elizabeth Ramirez, Anna Vasquez, Kristie Mayhugh, and Cassandra Rivera were tried and convicted of aggravated sexual assault and indecency with minors in 1994.  Their accusers were Ramirez’s nieces, Stephanie and Vanessa Limon, who were aged 7 and 9 during the time of the alleged incident.  All four women are lesbians.  All four are adamant about their innocence, even as they each serve prison sentences in excess of 12 years.

Compiled from personal footage, live interviews, and court room documents, Esquenazi illuminates a story of four women who were wrongly accused of terrible crimes during a time when public hysteria wrongly linked homosexuality to satanic ritual and crimes against children.  At the time of the trial, mainstream media would frequently run news stories and op-eds portraying the beliefs that ritualistic satanic worship was infiltrating local neighborhoods, and that LGBT men and women may have been under the control of such powers, which would lead to the ritual sexual abuse of children.  Though none of the four women worshipped satan or ever abused a child, they were ultimately convicted because they were lesbians, with the court relying on little evidence beyond the testimonial of two young girls.

In 2010, a news article took a second look at the case and found many flaws in the evidence used by the State of Texas to convict all four women.  A Canadian college instructor by the name of Darrell Otto also pointed out many holes in the evidence, so many that he elected to reach out to the San Antonio Four to hear their side of the story for himself.  The women acquiesced, though somewhat to Otto’s surprise they had little to say about the crime, as they had never committed it.  Coincidentally, Anna Vasquez, made parole shortly thereafter and was released after serving nearly 12 years of a 15-year sentence.  Now outside of the prison, Vasquez was better able to work to release and exonerate her friends.

One of the alleged victims, now a grown woman with children of her own, recanted her testimony, explaining what many had suspected all along – the two girls had lied about the entire incident.  This new testimony, combined with a revised statement from the doctor who had examined the girls in 1994, led to the release of Ramirez, Mayhugh, and Rivera in 2013.  The 4 women are now pursuing full exoneration, which would declare them legally innocent, wrongfully convicted, worthy of compensation from the state, and most importantly, the removal of a heinous crime from each of their records.

This gut-wrenching real-life drama presents an unfiltered look at what a myopic and prejudiced is capable of.  Audience will be angry, sad, yet still so full of hope as they watch these women’s lives unravel for over a decade before they can finally start to be put back together again.  A stirring reminder that Justice is meant to be blind.

4 Stars

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All pictures reproduced courtesy of Deborah Esquenazi

Dave Croyle

Dave Croyle

Dave Croyle is an advertising and marketing professional with a knack for building ideas and getting things done. Throughout his career he has written and produced creative work for a variety of brands, big and small. As a history buff and art geek, Dave is passionate about exploring cultures and seeing the world. Dave resides in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife and two dogs.