This is one of those hard-to-believe it’s true stories that never really grabbed the attention of the media so when you come to it ignorance and it unfolds on the screen and you hear the horrifying incredulous details, you cannot fail to be stunned into a combination of shock and anger. The latter particularly if you identify as LGBT as this outrageous case of mis-justice is deeply rooted in intransigent homophobia.
In 1994 four young Latina lesbians in San Antonia who were vey good friends …..two of them are involved in a relationship together ….. were accused of raping two young girls who were actually nieces of one of the accused. The case took two years to come to trial, and all the girls maintaining their innocence, refused the offer of plea bargaining. Consequently when they where found guilty, the judge handed down impossibly lengthy jail terms. Three of the young woman were sentenced for 15 years each, but the 4th was punished with 37.5 years! In his and the jury’s eyes they had three things going against them : they were low-income, Latina and gay women.
The ‘evidence’ that had convicted them had come from a pediatrician who testify that in her opinion the girls genitals had been touched, but mainly it rested on the testimony of the girls themselves which seemingly no-one dared, or wanted to challenge.
It was, as Debbie Nathan, an author on sexual politics and sex panics, explained the last gasp of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic, a bizarre hysteria that swept the US in the 1980’s and which seriously impacted officialdom’s take on dealing with any unusual cases of childcare. Nathan not only wrote the definitive book debunking the practice, but more importantly she was a board member of the National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ), an “innocence project” for people falsely accused of harming children.
As the years passed and the women lived out their sentences they continued to refuse to accept their convictions so they also would not agree to participate in any of special prison courses for sex-offenders which automatically meant that they lost all the good-behavior privileges they had earned to date. Then as they were nearing the end of the 15 years, they finally got a lucky break. Three actually. Despite being ignored by the media, their case did attract the attention of a lone researcher in the wilds of Yukon of all places. After communicating wth the women he was firmly convinced that this was a serious case of mis-justice, so he started to campaign to get the case reopened.
Then one of the young accusers, now grown up with children of her own, came forward and totally recanted her story about the abuse. Still in obvious fear of her father she nevertheless confirmed what the 4 had long suspected that he had coached his daughters because their aunt had rejected his sexual advances. Also he and the children’s grandmother were vehemently opposed to the women’s homosexuality and lifestyles, and this had also motivate them to invent this whole scenario.
Then new developments in science totally debunked the expert pediatricians evidence, which she happily came forward and confirmed in an affidavit, meaning that finally the Centre for Injustice could successfully petition for their release. However even out of jail they were still considered as convicted sex offenders and as such have to meet all the tough restrictions which greatly inhibited them from leading normal lives.
The next step was petitioning the Court for a complete exoneration which in any other circumstance should be a mere shoo-in now that there wasn’t any evidence against them. However they had the great misfortune to get the same judge from their original Trial who made little effort to hide either his reluctance to admit that he had got it wrong, or his own homophobia. He then took 10 months to give his ruling, and ended up refusing to pardon the women, and just offered them instead a re-trial. This will be at an indefinite date in the future, leaving these innocent women trapped by a justice system that seems like it will always be weighted against them.
Throughout all these long years these remarkably resilient young woman never lost their love and support for each other, and even though the prison system would not allow them to communicate directly with each other, they were just as close to each other when they are finally reunited. They could also count on the remarkable support of their own families despite the fact that they are devout Catholics, and had to adjust to the whole idea of their homosexuality. The four women all imbue such fortitude and an amazing sense of warmth and humor that they were determined to retain at all costs. The system may have inhumanely robbed them (and still robs them) of their freedom, but they will always refuse to let that crush them.
This excellent but very disturbing documentary by Austin based filmmaker Deborah S. Esquenazi was recently shown on the US Discovery TV channel and is still doing the rounds of Film Festivals and is so worth seeking out. http://www.southwestofsalem.com/screenings/