Chuck Haralson and Ken Smith were inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame during the 43rd annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism
In San Antonio in 1994, four young lesbians — Liz Ramirez, Anna Vasquez, Cassandra (Cassie) Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh — were accused of sexual assault by two of Ramirez's nieces. After trials dripping with homophobia and "Satanic panic," they were convicted.
The "San Antonio Four," as they are now known, who served years in prison — 17 years for Ramirez, 12 for Vasquez and 13 for Rivera and Mayhugh — maintain their innocence and are fighting for exoneration after one of the alleged victims recanted on camera, admitting it never happened.
What follows is an edited version of my conversation with Rivera, Ramirez and Vasquez.
Y'all have demonstrated such incredible bravery at every turn — to have come through all of this, to leave prison, to be working toward exoneration, and now the labor of taking your story and sharing it over and over. Do you feel a responsibility, like you're part of a larger purpose in this community now?
Rivera: We can tell that we're making an impact as we go. Everywhere, people are so open. They tell us they're praying for us. As far as being part of a movement like this, it feels good because we know that stuff like this has to be done to help other people that are going through the same circumstances. It was tragic for us to endure this, but now that we have, we know what we have to do in life.
Vasquez: I do feel like we are in the forefront of a new movement of social justice. Every time we go into a different city we have so many people coming up to us with similar stories or similar situations that they've been through and have not had the courage to speak out on or to fight against. I feel like we're, in a sense, their heroes for doing that. The gay communities in other cities have just been so accepting, so loving, with open arms, willing to help, and it's been a powerful impact on us as well. To know that we're not alone in this, that we have people standing behind us now.
Ramirez: We're greater in numbers. It's a movement. It's not only just us in the forefront, it's spreading everywhere. That's what our purpose is.
In the film, you mention the responsibility you felt to yourselves. You talk about how you didn't want people to think you were anything but who you are, honest people that had something horrible happen to them. Did you get, at the time, how important you would be?
Rivera: At the beginning I don't think any of us knew how big this would become. We all believed in one thing — we were innocent. And as far as continuing to fight for justice, we knew that sometime something may possibly occur, we didn't know it would be this big. We just continued to be exactly who we were before, just four women trying to live their lives in a decent manner. We were just trying to grow prosperously with our families and it was all taken away from us. Just because we're lesbian ... just because we are who we are, doesn't mean we do the things they accused us of.
Vasquez: Yeah, unfortunately that picture was painted years before we even came into our case. They associated homosexuality with child sexual abuse. And that is so far from the truth. Because of who we love, we were persecuted. I was in love with Cassie, and we raised two children together for many years before we were taken away from them. We were your ordinary family — except, two women raising two children. That is the only difference. We put on our pants the same way heterosexual people do. We love spending time with our kids. We love going to parks. We love going to lakes. And the picture they painted of homosexuals is ridiculous, upsetting and just absurd. Period.
Ramirez: In my trial, they were very harsh. They were badgering me, saying I sacrificed my nieces to my friends, and had the jury picture me giving them up on an altar. That was crazy; I never even had a chance. In their minds, it was exactly what we were doing. It was sick and degrading. And that's what they believed. That's what had me convicted.
Liz, you mentioned that your lawyer didn't prepare you before your trial. Then another attorney suggested that the rest of you be tried together, but that he expected you to lose. Even down to your own attorneys, it doesn't sound like anyone in the system was making any effort to help.
Ramirez: They told me I had no evidence and that was it. That was the extent of any lawyer-and-client association. He never even spoke to me about trying to get any witnesses or experts or anything of that sort. I just sat there and let it roll and didn't know any better, thinking that he knew the plan. I didn't know until after my trial that he was a civil attorney — and a military civil attorney at that. In order for him to try a criminal case, that was something that he should've said at the beginning. But he didn't.
Rivera: After Liz was given her 37.5 years, they wanted us to take plea bargains. They were practically forcing them on us because they didn't want to fight for us — they said we would lose. We refused and ended up retaining three more lawyers. We had to hire new attorneys that would actually want to fight for us. They didn't think we had a chance against children.
I know the West Memphis Three case was influential to you. Can you tell me about how their experience impacted you, what that's meant to you?
Vasquez: I remember seeing the HBO documentary before we were actually put in prison, but after we had been convicted. I could relate in so many ways to them. They were just picked out, just because they wore the black clothing, black fingernails, long black hair, whatever. They associated that with devil worshipping. We were ostracized as well because we were lesbians. Not only that, but they connected a satanic cult with us. How, I have no idea. We didn't walk around in black clothing, black fingernails, nothing like that. So, I don't see how they could've put that upon us other than using our sexuality against us. They [the WM3] fought. They continued to tell their story. They tried to gain attention. Their endurance was something I was drawn to. They said for so long they were innocent and nobody believed them. Just as they were taken advantage of, I feel like we were taken advantage of because we were lesbians. We were poor, and we didn't have a strong community behind us. The same thing for them, they didn't have community behind them. They were convicted in the public eye just like we were. Even before they hit trial. I remember vividly the day I heard on the radio that the WM3 were free, being excited to hear that they were free while I was sitting in my cell. It gave me so much hope. After so many years of being in prison, all of us ... it hit home. It really hit home for me.
I think people should have a more open mind and try not to be so prejudicial against people who are different — who don't live the same way others live, whether it's their race, who they love, who they are as a person. I think there has to be a change in that. Until we get good change there will be prejudice all over the world because of it.
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