San Antonio Four Exonerated
How lesbophobia and sexism imprisoned four innocent women.
It’s a disturbingly common occurrence in America: women and men being released from prison after years–sometimes decades–because they were wrongly convicted. DNA evidence, revelation of failed and incompetent counsel, witnesses who lied and later recanted–there are myriad reasons these wrongly convicted people are released.
What’s difficult to comprehend is how they were convicted in the first place.
The case of four Texas Latina lesbians is more confounding that most wrongful convictions. The way these four young women were railroaded into prison for a gruesome, inexplicable crime, which never even happened, is harrowing.
More harrowing still? What happened to those women could happen to any lesbians–especially young, vulnerable, working-class women just living their lesbian lives. Until their lesbianism becomes the locus for suspicion. Until the margins on which we often delude ourselves we no longer live begin to expose us as Other.
On November 23, four Texas lesbians were finally exonerated of the heinous crime of the gang rape of two young girls. The women had been convicted and had spent 15 long, torturous years in prison. Years in which two of the women were separated from their young children. Years in which they fought to have someone, anyone, take notice and help to free them.
They are called the San Antonio Four: Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez. The women were accused in 1994 of sexually assaulting Ramirez’s young nieces, seven and nine at the time. All four were convicted in 1998.
The day before Thanksgiving, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in favor of the San Antonio Four, by a preponderance of the evidence. The women have fought to clear their names for 22 years.
"They are innocent. And they are exonerated," said the plurality opinion by Judge David Newell, joined by two other judges on the court.
According to local news reports in San Antonio, seven of the nine judges heard the case. Among those, all were in agreement that the women should get a new trial. Five of the judges declared the women are actually innocent. That ruling will allow the women to seek compensation for their imprisonment from the state of Texas.
All of the women had insisted they were innocent from the time of the initial accusations. Each of the women spent more than a decade in prison: Vasquez was released in 2012, the other three women were released in 2013.
But the women had been fighting to be exonerated since Elizabeth Ramirez was first taken in for questioning in 1994. They continued to fear a second trial and conviction. Conviction for such a heinous crime makes it difficult to resume life outside prison. You’re on a sex offenders list and must register every place you live, you cannot be within a certain proximity to children, even just walking down a street. That sex offender status must be revealed on every job or housing or education application.
The charges filed against the women were always hard to fathom, substantiated primarily by innuendo and inference, but mostly by lesbophobia. The women not only knew they were innocent, they knew their accusers knew they were innocent.
Elizabeth Ramirez was taken in for questioning after a complaint was filed against her. The alleged victims? Her two nieces, aged seven and nine at the time. Ramirez was four months pregnant. By the time she was convicted and taken off to jail, her son was two. By the time she was exonerated, she was a grandmother.
At the time of the arrests, the girls had told other family members the four lesbians had gang raped them–tying them up, holding a gun to their heads. The girls were threatened with death if they told.
In 1994, law enforcement took children at their word on sexual assault, presuming that children never lie about such things, even though the majority of children lie readily and convincingly about many things on a daily basis, from stealing a cookie to pushing a sibling or classmate, until they are old enough to understand that lying is wrong.
After the women were convicted and sent to prison, the younger of the two children recanted. The evidence of sexual abuse provided at trial–which included no physical signs of abuse--is no longer accepted as indicating abuse and is considered junk science.
Ramirez was caring for her two nieces. The four women–all lesbians–were in and out of the 19-year-old Ramirez’ apartment. Ramirez’ friends, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera, were a lesbian couple who Ramirez had known since high school. The two young women were raising Rivera’s two children from a prior marriage. The fourth friend in the group, Kristie Mayhugh, was also a lesbian.
There were no complaints against the four women in the days after the girls went home to their father, Javier Limon’s, house. It was a month before an detective came to Ramirez’ place and took her in for questioning.
The Texas Observer reported that at the police station, Det. Thomas Matjeka asked Ramirez if she knew a man named Javier Limon and his two daughters. Of course she did. Limon was her sister’s ex-boyfriend, and the two daughters were her 7- and 9-year-old nieces. She saw them often. About a month before, they had spent a week at her apartment.
Matjeka asked Ramirez if she been in lesbian relationships. She said yes. Had she ever left her nieces under the care of her friends? Yes. Were they lesbians? Yes.
The detective then informed Ramirez that she and her friends were being accused of gang raping her nieces. She was also told her baby would immediately be removed from her care when she gave birth because she would not be allowed to be around children ever again, including her own.
The harrowing encounter with the police got worse as the other women were also brought in for questioning. All denied the charges. What’s more, they explained, due to their work schedules–each had one or more jobs–they were not together in the apartment at the same time. So that gang rape scenario, just from a simple logistical point, could not be true.
It didn’t matter. They were indicted and offered a plea bargain–ten years probation, with lifetime registry on the sex offenders list. But believing no jury could find them guilty, none of them would take the plea. They demanded a trial. They demanded to be found innocent.
But the trial was as much a trial of their lesbian lives as anything else. The prosecutor, Philip Kazen, told the jury that Ramirez had "held a 9-year-old girl up as a sacrificial lamb to her friends."
Yet the "evidence" against the women was not unlike that of the classic Lillian Hellman play, The Children’s Hour, also a 1961 film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. In Hellman’s play, two young women, Karen and Martha, run a private school for girls. But when one girl decides to pay back her teachers for a punishment by telling her grandmother they are lesbians, their lives are ruined. There is a trial. They are found guilty of lesbianism. There is nothing left for them. Martha commits suicide at the end after revealing she is, indeed, a lesbian.
Like The Children’s Hour, there was no crime. But the jury, told repeatedly of the women’s "perverse" "lifestyle," convicted all four. Rivera, who left her two small children in the care of relatives when she was convicted, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. The other three to 25 years.
It was after the stories were recanted and the so-called "evidence," which consisted of the girls being asked to describe the alleged rape on anatomically correct dolls, debunked, that the women were granted early parole–after spending 15 years in prison.
How did it happen? Ramirez told Matjeka that Limon had been attempting to woo her. When she became pregnant, he offered to marry her, but she refused. (The baby was not his, nor was she in any relationship with him.) It is her assertion he prompted the girls–both of whom waved and smiled at the women in court–to lie as revenge against Ramirez.
The San Antonio Four were not the first lesbians to be accused of sexually assaulting children. Years ago I wrote about the case of Kelly Michaels, a New Jersey child care worker who in 1985 was accused of assaulting all her 51 charges at the Wee Care Nursery School in Maplewood, New Jersey. Michaels was charged with 235 counts of child abuse and other charges spent five years in prison before she was released and her conviction overturned.
In her case the children alleged she had penetrated them with knives and forks, had made cakes out of human feces, had forced them to lick peanut butter off her genitals. All, somehow, in the nursery school where anyone could arrive at any time.
In both cases–Michaels’ and the San Antonio Four–the implication of Satanic ritual was invoked. Death threats and threats to family members were alleged by the victims. Small animals were alleged to have been killed at the daycare center. The fantastical stories of penetration with an array of objects so arcane and also large should have raised questions in and of itself. How could a child be penetrated with a wooden spoon and there be no sign of injury?
Margaret Kelly Michaels
The lesbianism of the accused women was a major factor–in part because of the conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia which has long been erroneously linked in the media.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, there was a spate of Satanic ritual abuse cases–most eventually debunked–that devastated the lives of not only the wrongly accused but the children who were repeatedly put on the witness stand to repeat stories of events that never happened. Yet the repetition of those stories began to impact the victims as they got older. Some continued to insist the events had occurred, even when they had been proven to be fantasy.
The atmosphere in which these trials were held was one in which outsiders like these lesbians were put through an auto da fé–these were witch hunts that attempted to punish lesbians for the crime of...being lesbian.
It’s hardly a remote idea–it’s more an historical legacy. Lesbians have always been a perceived threat to heterosexual order and that was obviously the case with Elizabeth Ramirez. How dare she refuse Limon’s advances by claiming lesbianism? How dare Cassandra Rivera raise her children with another woman, instead of a man?
According to Vasquez, during their trial, defense attorneys asked the women to wear dresses and make up and fix their hair in ways to look more feminine. She said the references to the women’s lesbianism was repetitive and made to sound like a crime itself.
Mike Ware, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, who represented the San Antonio Four, said he considered the charges "preposterous" even when he began working on the case. "It sort of gave [law enforcement] what they needed – ‘they’re gay, the other, who knows what they’re up to’," said Ware.
Deborah Esquenazi’s documentary, "Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four" explicates just how easily the four young lesbian women were otherized by the system which just as easily convicted them. The film is chilling as the women explain what happened to them–from their prison cells.
Esquenazi said of the exoneration of the San Antonio Four, “This is a stunning victory, not only for the San Antonio Four, but for gay rights. I couldn’t have imagined that six years ago, with nothing more than a camera and shoe-leather journalistic persistence, that this day would come. It shows the power of art. It shows that even with no cultural capital, power, or resources, we can make great change.”
Deborah Esquenazi and The San Antonio Four
Cases like the San Antonio Four and that of Michaels make us wonder what other cases are out there which have not garnered the attention of an Innocence Project or a filmmaker or a veteran reporter, each determined to achieve justice.
But part of that concern is about how adults who fear lesbians can confabulate stories that put their own children at risk. Limon damaged his daughters by engaging them in that lie. All the children involved in the Wee Care case were left confused about whether or not they were really victims, had indeed been violated.
"It’s inexplicable, impossible to describe," Michaels said at a panel with some of the San Antonio women after a screening of Esquenazi’s film in September at the Tribeca Film Festival. "You don’t think it could happen to you."
At the same panel, Debbie Nathan, a journalist who wrote extensively about cases involving allegations of Satanic rituals, said "the trials followed well-worn tropes. There were often obsessive conversations about whether this person is gay," said Nathan, who first questioned Michaels’ conviction in a front-page story for the Village Voice, in 1988.
"In many cases, whispers would circulate throughout towns during trials. Gossip and rumor – how could they have done this? They must have been lesbians," said Nathan. "There’s a lot of attention pay to sexual minorities when they’re victims … but if they’re accused they are largely ignored," she said.
And each such case leaves the door open for others–since suspicion about lesbians lingers. Michael Ware of the Innocence Project describes in Esquenazi’s documentary how the details of the alleged crime against Ramirez’s nieces sounded much more like pornographic fantasy sex being described by an adult male than actual sexual abuse.
But even with exoneration, the San Antonio Four must face both the losses they’ve endured and the likelihood that more people will have heard of their conviction and sentencing than of their being found innocent.
In the end they were all still guilty–of being lesbians. Lesbianism remains a crime in many countries and even more prevalently in the minds of millions worldwide. Which is how it became, as it was in Hellman’s iconic play, the accusation that could not be refuted. And which made all the others—no matter how fantastical or horrifying—seem plausible to a homophobic jury in a staid Texas town.
What the story of the San Antonio Four tells us is this could happen to any lesbian. Because our very lives are still under scrutiny and by extension, suspicion.