A few months ago I reviewed a great documentary on here called SATAN LIVES. It chronicled all manner of theories about the Man With Horns, and also talked about the daycare witch-hunts in the early eighties that occurred after the release of the book ‘Michelle Remembers’. For those unfamiliar with the tome, it was the story of a young woman named Michelle Smith, who was a patient of distinguished psychiatrist Dr Lawrence Pazder, in Victoria, Canada, during the late 1970s. Pazder was married, a devout traditional Catholic family man, and Michelle presented originally with symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Pazder suspected child abuse might be a factor in Michelle’s psychological problems, but she had no memories of such, so Pazder started probing her subconscious memory through hypnosis. These hypnotherapy sessions became more and more frequent, sometimes lasting a day. After several years of treating Michelle, Pazder divorced his wife, Michelle divorced her husband, and Lawrence and Michelle got married to each other and published ‘Michelle Remembers’. The book detailed the horrific sexual abuse and torture that Michelle supposedly suffered at the hands of a sadistic satanic abuse cult, as a very young girl. Pazder became an expert in “recovered memory”, and as more and more everyday parents began to question the slightest changes in the behaviour of their toddlers, the US became obsessed by the idea of satanic abuse in the childcare system. The specific cases detailed in the film are terrifying, and it goes without saying that the book has subsequently been discredited by several investigations that found no corroboration of the book's events. Others have pointed out that the events described in the book were extremely unlikely and in some cases even impossible, but nonetheless, lives were ruined on both sides.
Which bring me to the modern day witch hunt detailed in tonight’s documentary, SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR, which details a case some have called the “last gasp of the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 80’s and early 90’s”. An unbelievable true crime story, it explores the nightmarish persecution of Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez, four young Latina lesbians who were wrongfully convicted of allegedly gang-raping two little girls in San Antonio, Texas. The film begins its journey inside a Texas prison, after these women have spent nearly a decade behind bars. They were just 19 and 20 years at the time that allegations surfaced, and it is immediately obvious that the situation has effectively broken their spirits. Director Deborah S. Esquenazi uses the women’s home video footage from 21 years ago to share their personal histories, then seamlessly adds in recent footage and interviews to expand the tale.15 years into their journey, she incredibly captures an on-camera recantation by one of the initial “victims”, now 25 years old although just seven at the time of the investigation. This brings the filmmaker into the role of investigator along with attorneys at the Innocence Project, who are just beginning their quest for truth in the case.
As poor, lesbian, women of colour, it is clear that the women hold intersecting identities that make them the most vulnerable to incarceration and juror bias. This under-reported injustice is reportedly widespread: Latina women represent one of the growing populations heading into prison. In addition, most reported exonerations and wrongful convictions focus solely on men, and cases involving women - let alone gay WOC - are largely under-reported. Unique to the San Antonio Four case, none of the four women ever took a plea bargain or even considered it, and this is despite the women serving their time in separate prisons and being permitted zero contact. Their unified innocence is palpable, and the frustration you feel as the documentary unfolds is incredible.
Together with attorneys, the film culminates with the women being released from prison to await exoneration hearings in San Antonio. Helming new legislation, theirs was the first case in U.S. history that allowed wrongfully convicted innocents to challenge convictions based on ‘Junk Science’, or debunked forensics. This is evidence used by prosecutors that they think is based on science, but which, on later examination, does not stand up to scientific testing. Junk science! With no DNA evidence to support their convictions, this is what a lot of what their incarceration came down to, and it was the same “science” used alongside recovered memory at the heart of the aforementioned daycare trials.
Anyway, this is a fantastically crafted film that I believe will give hope to innocent people who have been convicted everywhere. It ends on the women’s lives now – and that of one of their key accusers – and it is testament to their forgiving natures and incredible personal strength that they are all putting their lives together again, piece by tiny piece.
A triumph in the true crime genre.
SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR premieres Thursday 16 November 8.30pm on Rialto Channel
Watch trailer here