By Oliver O'Brien
“If people knew how little justice and truth had to do with the justice system, they’d amass the courthouse with stakes on fire.” says a lawyer from the Innocence Project of Texas while discussing the trial of the San Antonio Four.
We are greeted by trembling lips and wet eyes as we meet Anna Vasquez, a woman convicted a crime she never committed. She ruminates on her difficulties of coming out as gay in the deep south. She reminisces on her time with her girlfriend, Cassie, which whom she raised two children with and had a quiet and peaceful life with. Soon enough, you realize this is a woman who has been fighting her entire life to live life normally and it’s a losing battle.
Anna and four other women, named the San Antonio Four, were convicted of rape of a minor during a satanic ritual. This stunning documentary follows the four as they recount their story and unravel the myriad of inconsistencies in their case. The film catches them after nearly 15 years in prison when they finally manage to get some attention from lawyers who wanted to take their case to prove their innocence. At its core, “Southwest of Salem” is about how broken the American justice system is. It’s a terrifying nightmare that will turn your guts inside out as it provokes you to think how incredibly easy it is to be incarcerated with the help of a little bad luck and a lifetime of prejudice.
During the 1990s headlines were popping with criminal cases involving satanic cult killings and ritual abuse. The aptly dubbed “Satanic Panic” created 100’s of false charges and sensationalized trials, a disproportionate number of which accused LGBTQ people. This film explores homophobia, racism, and religious agendas within the justice system and exposes it with the help of renowned lawyers and the insight of these four women.
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After the film, Luminato Festival held a panel discussing the themes of the movie. Bhavan Sodhi, a Case Management Counsel at Innocence Canada, felt this film is entirely applicable to those who have been incarcerated for marijuana possession and are still serving their sentence after legalization. She discusses her frustrations with the Canadian justice system and how difficult it is to prevent wrongful convictions due to the volume of cases and outdated laws. The combination of the film and panel managed to leave a sickly feeling in my gut coming to the realization of how easy it is to be sentenced to a lifetime of prison in North America.
*Editor’s Note: VIBE105 is the Community Media Partner of Luminato Festival 2019