If you were one of the thousands of people swept up in the Netflix Original series "Making a Murderer" or just a true crime buff, turn your attention to the "San Antonio Four," a group of friends and Latina lesbians who were wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting two young girls in what was made out to be a Satanic ritual involving witchcraft.
In 1997, Elizabeth Ramirez, Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh were accused of gang-raping Ramirez's two young nieces at gunpoint when they stayed over for the weekend. The graphic and disturbing accusations led to investigators' allegations that the 19- and 20-year-old women were involved in "Satanic-related sexual abuse."
Three of the women were sentenced to 15 years in prison. Ramirez, who allegedly initiated the assault, was sentenced to 37.5 years.
Three of the women were parents to young children; Vasquez and Rivera, then in a relationship, were co-parenting Rivera's two young children and Elizabeth Ramirez, pregnant at the time of the allegations, delivered a son just days before entering prison. All of the women maintained their total innocence, refusing plea deals that would have required them to admit guilt.
Not only were the convictions partially motivated by the "Satanic panic" that saw fantastical accusations leveled against daycare workers and other child care providers in the '80s and '90s, but the trial also took place in an atmosphere of extreme anti-gay sentiment.
The court had a difficult time even finding jurors who weren't openly homophobic, and the prevailing wisdom at the time was that gay people were more likely to molest children. In fact, the majority of those charged with Satanic ritual abuse were gay or perceived to be gay by the accusers.
As one of the women puts it in the documentary, the prosecution made it seem as if "this is what gay people do."
In a new documentary about the trial and its aftermath, "Southwest of Salem," one of the alleged victims, who was 7 at the time, is filmed recanting her testimony. She explains that her father, possibly motivated by revenge against Ramirez's refusal to date him, put her up to telling the story and terrified her into silence for years afterward.
The doctor who gave medical testimony saying that the young girls showed physical signs of sexual assault also reverses her opinion, explaining that the science has progressed further and she now acknowledges that her findings at the time of the trial were incorrect.
Based on the strength of this new evidence, the women were released from prison and granted exoneration hearings, presided over by the same judge who presided over their original convictions. Ten months later, Judge Pat Priest made his recommendation to the Criminal Court of Appeals that the women be retried for their alleged crimes. This shocked the women and their defense team, who expected to have their innocence affirmed.
"I think the only reason that the investigation was seriously pursued, why there wasn't more skepticism about the preposterous allegations in the first place, was because these four women had recently come out as gay, that they were openly gay."
The case is now awaiting appeal to the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, the last chance for the women to be exonerated. You can take action to support the San Antonio Four in their ongoing quest to legally prove their innocence by following the actions on this page to call, tweet or Facebook the office of the District Attorney's Office.
The documentary is now screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, and you can check back here for future screenings or releases.