WCSU News

WCSU to screen award-winning film ‘Southwest of Salem’ Nov. 1

Members of exonerated San Antonio Four to discuss miscarriage of justice after presentation

DANBURY, CONN. — Western Connecticut State University will screen the award-winning documentary “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” and present a panel discussion featuring two of the women whose wrongful conviction and imprisonment are recounted in the film at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, in the Campus Center Ballroom on the Westside campus, 43 Lake Ave. Extension in Danbury.

Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera will participate in the panel and question-and-answer session following the film showing. Admission to the event, sponsored by the WCSU Justice and Law Society, will be free and the public is invited to attend.

Vasquez, Rivera, Elizabeth Ramirez and Kristie Mayhugh were exonerated in November 2016 by the Texas Court of Appeals of all charges stemming from an indictment brought against the four lesbian Latina women in 1994 alleging they had sexually assaulted the seven- and nine-year old nieces of Ramirez. The women were convicted based largely on the statements of the young children and questionable forensic evidence, resulting in prison sentences of more than 37 years for Ramirez and 15 years for Vasquez, Rivera and Mayhugh. All continued to insist on their innocence and, following release of Vasquez on parole in 2012 and the other three on bail in 2013, they challenged their convictions in court with the assistance of the Innocence Project of Texas.

“Southwest of Salem,” directed by Deborah Esquenazi, chronicles the women’s legal battle to prove their innocence, supported by the debunking of outdated forensic science used in their trial and new testimony from one of Ramirez’s nieces who recanted her previous testimony and declared she had been pressured by her father to bring false allegations of rape. Through interviews with the four women and a carefully built presentation of evidence demonstrating their innocence, including the niece’s recantation and an expert witness’s admission that her forensic evidence in the case was flawed, the documentary makes a compelling case that the women were convicted wrongfully in a prevailing atmosphere of public fear and hysteria.

“Esquenazi’s documentary tells a miscarriage of justice tale that practically bursts with societal issues to address: homophobia, socioeconomic inequality, child abuse, trial misconduct, tabloid hysteria, junk science and innocence advocacy,” Los Angeles Times film critic Robert Abele wrote at the time of its theatre release. “Esquenazi’s passionately argued film easily convinces that the charges are impossible to believe, yet that a perfect storm of 1990s panic surrounding gay intolerance, satanic ritual-abuse claims and iffy scientific evidence could turn a shaky case into a slam dunk.”

Since its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2016, the documentary has garnered critical acclaim and honors at festivals in California, Colorado, Arkansas, New Mexico and Nova Scotia. This year “Southwest of Salem” received the prize for Outstanding Documentary at the 2017 Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Awards.

The film also earned a Peabody Award in April recognizing its achievement in “highlighting a story of an overlooked population vulnerable to homophobia and misogyny, and the cost of prejudice.” The Peabody Award citation described the film as “a modern tale of colonial-style persecution” that portrays the humanity of the women through personal interviews and home videos woven into the story of their fight for exoneration. “We learn about each woman and the struggles of being a homosexual woman of color in their conservative Texas community,” the citation said. “The case leads to landmark legislation and exoneration — a poignant victory for these women who maintain acceptance and compassion and never seem bitter or enraged toward their accusers.”

The film’s 2016 release galvanized a nationwide petition drive for the exoneration of the San Antonio Four in the months leading up to the Texas Court of Appeals decision declaring their innocence of the charges on which they were convicted. In his opinion for the court, Judge David Newell wrote that the women “have won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime, that they are innocent, that they deserve to be exonerated.”

For more information, contact Professor of Justice and Law Administration Dr. Casey Jordan at jordanc@wcsu.edu or the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.

 

 

Western Connecticut State University offers outstanding faculty in a range of quality academic programs. Our diverse university community provides students an enriching and supportive environment that takes advantage of the unique cultural offerings of Western Connecticut and New York. Our vision: To be an affordable public university with the characteristics of New England’s best small private universities.