Directed By: Deborah S. Esquenazi
“As a filmmaker I am committed to using media to reveal societal inequities, rally support for important causes, and create probing, powerful cinema. This is what inspired my work on behalf of Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez, and Elizabeth Ramirez, known today as the ‘San Antonio Four’.
I first heard about their case from my friend and colleague Debbie Nathan, the acclaimed journalist also known for her investigative work on the Oscar-nominated documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS. Nathan sent me a VHS tape she thought I should see for a prospective film; on the tape were two key elements that made me realize that this story would make a powerful film. First, I watched as the women recorded home movies of their attempts to find exculpatory evidence to help them with their case. Here they were going on the ‘hunt’ to find new evidence, driving back to the scene of the alleged crime and interviewing eye-witnesses. Second, and something that was glaringly absent in all of the reporting surrounding this case, was that clearly two of the women had been in a relationship and raising two children together. I was overcome. Here were Anna and Cassie and their kids, Ashley and Mikey, doing simple family things: cooking dinner, watching TV, playing video games, going on a family vacation. Suddenly, this was a heartbreaking tale about a gay family torn apart. These two women, no doubt, were living boldly for San Antonio, Texas in the 90’s. They had been railroaded because of their sexual identities. I could tell by the timestamp on the footage that their home movies were shot just weeks shy of turning themselves into authorities to begin their prison sentences after failed appeals, which painted a fuller picture of the experience of indictments and life unfolding for the retelling.
I also want to share something personal about why I needed to direct this film. My journey of making this movie started 5 years ago. Just weeks before Nathan sent me that VHS, I came out of the closet, and frankly, I was struggling with painful anxiety and bouts of depression. But seeing the strength of these amazing women living their truths, even as I visited them behind bars in various maximum security Texas prisons, I was prompted to examine my own life. It felt false to hide behind the fear of the closeted life, and I pushed myself to come out in my thirties to my conservative Cuban family.
I’ve pursued this case with vigor since the summer of 2011. This was back when the case was stale, the advocacy team small, and four innocent women had languished in prison for a decade. To my surprise, our then small film suddenly propelled into national relevance when I captured an on-camera recantation by one of the little girls (now a 25-year old adult), who initially testified that she was raped over a 48-hour period. In this three-hour recantation she reveals how her father and grandmother, who held vendettas against the women, and later prosecutors, prepped the little girls to lie about the rape, and how the children were pressured to cover up the truth as questions about the veracity of the crime began to surface. After Stephanie’s recantation, I collaborated with LGBTQQ activists to engage in a community-driven campaign to make noise about the women. Along with the Texas QPOC organization, ALLGO, and various national / local non-profits and student groups, we held 17 work-in-progress screenings across the state in a two-year span. We showed raw, unedited interviews with the women from their prisons as well shared interviews with attorneys, journalists and investigators, who were first-responders into the reinvestigation into this case. Thanks to the ‘Junk Science’ bill that passed in Texas prospective exonorees can be released on bond to face new evidentiary hearings. Ten months after the women were released to face their own searing hearings in February 2016, Judge Pat Priest came down with a “recommendation” to the Criminal Court of Appeals. His decision was a blow to the defense: he suggested that the women should be retried, and that their “assertion of proof for ‘actual innocence’ falls short of the mark.” This was a massive upset to what the four women, the defense and producing team, considered a changing tide of attitudes about gay rights, and a the attenuation of homophobia in America.
What is to come remains unknown in the lives of the ‘San Antonio Four’, and we hope that it includes being exonerated for a crime that never actually happened.”