In the summer of 1994, 22-year-old Elizabeth Ramirez and her friends Anna Vasquez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera were accused of raping Ramirez's two young nieces during a week-long stay at her apartment in San Antonio, Texas. The allegations against the women, all of whom were openly gay, were outlandish and constantly changing. The nieces, their father and grandmother told various authorities and two courts that Aunt Liz and her friends had suddenly called the nieces in from playing one day to strip them naked, hold them down and violently penetrate them with a syringe of unidentified liquid, white powder and a tampon. They claimed one of the women had put a weapon to their heads – a knife in one telling, but later a gun, then two guns. All the women were convicted. Ramirez was tried first and sentenced to 37 years, while Vasquez, Mayhugh and Rivera were tried together and each sentenced to 15 years.
Now, the documentary Southwest of Salem: the Story of the San Antonio Four, tells the story of those convictions, made on the basis of inexplicable allegations and junk forensic science. The film, which will begin airing on the Discovery ID network on October 15th, explains how it all went down at the tail end of a period of nationwide panic that Satan-worshippers were preying on children at daycare, in an atmosphere that was very homophobic.
With the women released and rebuilding their lives at the film's end, it's tempting to think the strange case is an outlier from a terrible bygone era and it was inevitable that justice would prevail. But a deeper look into the court documents reveals that these women were deprived of their lives and torn from their children and families due to missteps that aren't so unusual in our criminal justice system.
The film introduces us to four women who somehow seem to have stayed kind and hopeful throughout their ordeal. We learn who they were as young women before their lives were turned upside down, and we also see the women they become, maintaining their innocence and hope after years separated from their families and each other. It's an ultimately uplifting testament to their resilience and the dedication of the lawyers, reporters and activists who worked to get them out of prison. But it leaves some questions lingering: Why haven't they been fully exonerated yet, and how could this happen in the first place?
The transcripts from the two trials read like a dystopian nightmare. Ramirez's defense attempted to put the children's mother on the stand to explain that the likely inspiration for their story about a gun – given that none of the women owned one – was an incident when their father, Javier Limon (whose advances Ramirez had rejected repeatedly), had held a gun to their mother's head in front of them. But the judge deemed that irrelevant and refused to let the jury hear it.
The defense managed to keep the jury from hearing speculation that the alleged attacks were "satanic-related," but prosecutor Philip Kazen got the message across nonetheless with language about Ramirez having "sacrificed" her niece on "the altar of lust." When Ramirez took the stand and said she would never hurt her nieces, Kazen announced, "So says O.J., ma'am." He later explained away the fact that the children and their grandmother couldn't keep their stories straight by telling the jury that was to be expected of children and implying that only a rape apologist would even consider whether the children were being truthful. He told the jury he wasn't asking them to convict Ramirez because she's gay, but that being a lesbian was consistent with her abusing girls. (Kazen went on to become a judge and ran for District Attorney in 2014.)
In the first trial, Kazen ridiculed the idea that Limon put his daughters up to making the accusations, claiming that no father would subject his daughters to a rape exam unnecessarily. By the time of the second trial, the defense had discovered that Limon had in fact previously taken them for rape examinations after making unfounded claims they'd been raped by a 10-year-old boy while in their mother's custody. The judge decided Limon's previous allegations were irrelevant so the jury couldn't hear about them.
The defendants provided a painstaking timeline of the week the children stayed with Ramirez that showed the young women were seldom at the apartment together with the opportunity to team up for the bizarre attack alleged. They were juggling work at Arby's and AutoZone, shifts watching the girls and Rivera's kids and coordinating rides to Walmart, public parks and the doctor. But no one could demonstrate an alibi given the vague and changing claims about when the alleged attacks occurred.
When the children and their grandmother were questioned about changing their stories as to what the weapon was and which woman had threatened the girls with it, they insisted their stories hadn't changed so the court reporter must have gotten their testimony in the previous trial wrong.
In 2012, one of the nieces recanted her testimony, explaining she and her sister were coerced into making the allegations by Limon – who has since made more allegations of his children being sexually assaulted in the context of custody battles involving his other children, and who tried to have his daughter's children taken away after she recanted.
Homophobia and hysteria didn't deprive these women of their freedom – prosecutors did.
A recantation never should have been necessary to see the allegations were false, but child abuse expert Dr. Nancy Kellogg, who frequently testifies for prosecutors, lent them credence by first telling authorities deciding whether to prosecute, and then testifying in both trials, that a mark she observed on the hymen of one of the girls was a scar likely caused by painful penetration.
However, as the American Academy of Pediatrics explained in a 2007 report, "torn or injured hymens do not leave scars as a matter of scientific fact." Variations like the ones Dr. Kellogg claimed were evidence of traumatic injury are normal and she has since admitted her testimony was flawed. She suggested her methods were accepted science back then, but other experts say they had been discredited at the time.
What had definitely been debunked was the idea that satanic cults were preying on children. Yet Kellogg concluded that the alleged assault might be "satanic related" and shared her suspicions with authorities.
Kellogg, who does not appear in the film, continues to be considered an expert in the field. She's on the faculty at the University of Texas, leads a center specializing in assessing children for abuse and, not only trains other medical professionals, but created a computer program for diagnosing abuse that is sold to hospitals.
Dr. Kellogg has testified in over 800 abuse cases. And this isn't the only one in which the accuser of someone she helped convict has recanted. It's anyone's guess how many innocent people are in prison thanks to her testimony.
But Dr. Kellogg may not be so unusual. The use of junk forensic science in criminal courts is rampant. Fortunately for the San Antonio Four, Texas is one of few states that has taken steps to address wrongful convictions based on bad scientific evidence. Its 2013 statute, informally known as the "junk science law," allows people to challenge their convictions where there is new or changed scientific evidence, even if they've exhausted their appeals.
The film captures the court hearing in which the women challenged their convictions under the new law. The district attorney's office agreed Kellogg's testimony was unsound and the women were entitled to new trials. The judge, who had admitted the testimony when he presided over the original trial of Ramirez's friends, objects to the district attorney characterizing Kellog's testimony as "junk science," claiming it was accepted at the time. The judge ultimately agreed new trials were warranted, but found the women had not proven they were actually innocent.
The San Antonio Four need to be exonerated in order to be compensated by the state for the years they spent unjustly imprisoned. But with the case now before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the district attorney's office hasn't weighed in supporting a finding that the women are actually innocent, rather than just entitled to new trials.
Homophobia and hysteria didn't deprive these women of their freedom – prosecutors did. The state's reluctance to take responsibility in a case where its failings have been unusually well-documented and publicized suggests locking up the occasional innocent person isn't that big a deal. With that conviction-at-all-costs mentality pervasive among prosecutors in the U.S., we can expect there are many more innocent people in prison than we know.