UPDATE: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Wednesday, Nov. 23 that the women known as the "San Antonio 4" be declared innocent and exonerated.
A local grassroots organization hopes a documentary film and an online petition drive will help to lead to the exoneration of four local women whose convictions of sexual assault were based on questionable testimony and evidence.
The screening will include a discussion with the women featured in a notorious case that made national headlines more than 20 years ago.
View the video of the panel session with the women below:
In July 1994, Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera were accused of sexually assaulting two children related to Ramirez. Although their attorneys, family members and supporters pointed to discrepancies in the prosecution’s case, the four women - ranging in ages 19 to 22 at the time - were sentenced to prison.
The women, nicknamed the "San Antonio Four" in the press, maintained their innocence. Many observers over the years have claimed that the convictions were charged with a homophobic bias, and essentially were a modern-day witch hunt.
In the 1980s and early 90s, media were filled with accounts of ritualistic, even satanic, child sex abuse, as well as outright sacrifice of adults or animals. The women and their friends and loved ones say this only further grew a bias against them.
Years later, one alleged victim of the San Antonio Four recanted her testimony. Evidence used to convict the women was debunked. Vasquez was released on early parole. The other three were released on bond, but were told earlier in 2016 that while they could receive new trials, exoneration would not be an option.
If not exonerated, all four women would remain registered sex offenders. Ramirez could face completing the final 20 years of her sentence.
Over the last several months, there has been a ramping up of efforts to get the women exonerated. A petition drive, aimed at Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, is underway here. So far, nearly 24,000 signatures have been collected toward the 25,000 goal.
The local group Maestranza created the petition. Denise Hernandez founded the organization in March 2015 as a way to create a space to educate and empower others to be leaders in their communities.
“So far we were the lead organizers for the Dump Trump SATX protest that happened in June, an organizer for Chingona Fest, and I’ve done a few speaking engagements besides TEDxSan Antonio,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said she first heard about the San Antonio Four from a National Public Radio “Latino USA” podcast. She said she feels the lasting impact of homophobia has made these women examples of the danger that results from this specific kind of prejudice. She added said she has seen pervasive homophobia in San Antonio for years.
“I had seen the story mentioned before, but to hear the full story and recognize the extreme injustice these women went through so close to home made me livid,” Hernandez said. “I grew up fighting alongside LGBTQ friends against religious zealots and people who are just plain ignorant, so the story hit close to me.”
Hernandez continued: “I’m also an avid speaker against the corruption of our justice system, and it was blatant that these women were convicted and sentenced to a crime they did not commit.”
A friend of Hernandez, Anel Flores, asked if she could help gather support for the San Antonio Four.
“At the time it seemed like a large portion of San Antonio had never heard of the case, and if they had they didn’t realize the women had been freed recently and were seeking full exoneration,” said Hernandez.
“There are many of us in this group working to bring awareness to the S.A. Four’s situation, especially to our local area.”
Admission to Saturday’s screening is free, but attendees are encouraged to take part in a post-screening discussion, sign Maestranza’s petition and donate to a recoup fund for the S.A. Four.
“We hope to generate more support for the women to show DA LaHood we stand behind them and will not stop until they receive full justice,” Hernandez said.
She added that feedback for the film and the petition drive, thus far, bas been positive. “Southwest of Salem” has garnered positive reviews at various film festivals.
“People from around the world have seen the film and send their support to the SA 4. We hope to continue this momentum until we reach the final goal of full exoneration,” she added.