Deborah Esquenazi film played vital role in effort to exonerate San Antonio Four
For the women known as the San Antonio Four this has been the sweetest Thanksgiving possible.
After a cruel legal ordeal of more than 20 years the women have finally been granted what they sought for so long: a declaration of their innocence. The news came at last this Wednesday as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals exonerated them of sexually assaulting two young girls, overturning a conviction that had sent each of them to prison for over a decade.
Those defendants have won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime... They are innocent. And they are exonerated.
In a majority opinion Judge David Newell reportedly wrote, "Those defendants 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. These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated."
Were it not for the work of filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi this day might never have come. She documented the nightmare endured by the defendants -- Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra "Cassie" Rivera -- in Southwest of Salem, released in theaters earlier this year.
Crucially, Esquenazi filmed a recantation by one of the two alleged victims whose original testimony had put the defendants behind bars. Further, the filmmaker demonstrated how homophobic prejudice against the women -- Latina lesbians -- had factored into their conviction. Ramirez, Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera were portrayed at trial as members of a Satanic lesbian cult who purportedly assaulted the young girls as part of an initiation rite. Esquenazi's work, and the work of the Innocence Project of Texas, clearly showed that no crime had been committed -- other than the false allegation against the women.
Related: The San Antonio Four on the campaign to win their innocence: 'It became something so profound, so amazing. We never thought we would be here today. We never did.'
The stunning legal victory unleashed a torrent of messages on Twitter congratulating the San Antonio Four. Even Amanda Knox, herself the subject of a recent documentary about her murder trial in Italy, sent a tweet.
Investigation Discovery, which premiered Southwest of Salem on television in the fall, will re-air the film this Sunday, November 27, at 9am ET. It is also available for viewing on Investigation Discovery's streaming platform, IDGO.com.
Nonfictionfilm.com was honored to moderate a Q&A with Esquenazi, producer Sam Tabet and the San Antonio Four in Los Angeles this past August. We add our congratulations to Ramirez, Mayhugh, Vasquez and Rivera and praise for their courage and resilience in the face of injustice. Anyone who has met them can testify to their warmth, decency and humanity.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.