Just Films: Southwest of Salem

  By: Reneé Gasbarre

The second selection of this year’s Just Films series was Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four. The documentary follows the investigation of the wrongful convictions of four Latina women for supposedly gang-raping two little girls in the late 90s. Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassie Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez tell their stories about growing up as lesbians in homophobic San Antonio, Texas, as well as their struggle to prove their innocence while being in jail for almost fifteen years. There were a lot of things working against them at the time, including the town’s homophobia, discrimination within the local police system, inaccurate forensic evidence, and the presence of the Satanic Panic that was sweeping through the United States. Eventually they were released from prison when one of the alleged victims admitted to being pressured into making up the allegations, eventually leading to their exoneration (cleared from accusation completely).
Afterwards, Cassie Rivera was able to able to video chat with the audience to discuss the movie and her experience alongside panelist Liz DeLosa, the current managing attorney for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project’s Pittsburgh Office.
The court was practically ready to throw them in jail from the very beginning. The jurors had been told beforehand that the accused were lesbians, which instantly put them at a disadvantage. No one really considered their innocence for a second. To the court, they were “just four lesbian rapists…God it was ridiculous.” When asked about the initial trial, Rivera admitted that she regrets not choosing better representation. “You need an expert,” she told us. “We were told that we were gonna lose.” Despite this, they never took the plea bargain that was offered to them. “We ultimately believe the truth will set you free,” she said.
Right now Rivera works for an attorney and is intent on going to law school. She’s also working with the Innocence Project to help people who have been wrongly accused like she was, so that no one has to go through what she did. “We’re trying to make a change,” she explained. “there’s so much ignorance.” Being able to talk with one of the “San Antonio Four” both surprised me and brought closure to the movie. It was really inspiring to hear about Rivera’s work to make a positive change in the legal world, and that she’s become a strong, driven woman despite all that she went through.
Liz DeLosa discussed some of the work that she does with the Innocence Project, criticizing the legal system as well. According to DeLosa, it isn’t uncommon for a case to be dependent on interrogations that are set up to “get a confession” out of the accused. “Our system is built on this unreliable, incentivized testimony,” she said. She also pointed out how “we treat people like they are guilty from the second they are accused,” and that “1-3% of all people convicted ever year in the U.S. that are innocent.”
The documentary was riveting, especially with its use of interview footage to aid in the storytelling. It’s also worth noting that it didn’t beat around the bush or ignore the fact that homophobia had a large role in the entire incident. Even in this day and age, it’s rare to have this be openly acknowledged in any sort of media. Like the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, many people refused to admit that homophobia was a driving factor. No one wants to be seen as a homophobe, so they’ll make up whatever they can to justify their blatantly homophobic actions in another way. It’s infuriating. So seeing this was such a relief. Finally, someone was telling the truth.
Remember, the next showing will be of Major! on November 15th.