THE SLEEPY LAGOON CASE
— pageant of prejudice
Issued by Citizens' Committee for the Defense of Mexian-American Youth
THE SLEEPY LAGOON CASE - PAGEANT OF PREJUDICE
By Alice Greenfield (Executive member of
(NOTE: The following is a resume of the discriminatory facts surrounding the trial. In the pamphlet THE SLEEPY LAGOON CASE (available in English and Spanish) the broad, political implications of the case are put forth. In the pamphlet is an analysis of the significance of the case to this country at war with fascism. The pamphlet should be read for a real understanding of the importance of the case.)
The Sleepy Lagoon case was tried in an atmosphere of flaming prejudice which was whipped up by the press for months before the trial began. The Hearst press in particular, by means of distortion and lies, had succeeded in building a phony "crime wave", repudiated by all official statistics.
When the Sleepy Lagoon case broke it had already been established in the minds of the public that any Mexican-American youth was a "pachuco gangster," a "zoot-suit criminal," a highly suspicious character indeed!
On August 2, 1942, one Jose Diaz was found dead on the Williams Ranch near "Sleepy Lagoon," ironically named mud reservoir where the kids went to swim and to meet their friends.
Immediately there began a round up of Mexican boys and girls. Between 400 and 600 were picked up in the most shocking mass arrests outside of Nazi Germany. Among them were many 12- and 13-year-old girls. They were held incommunicado, beaten and threatened until from these terrorized younsters the officers succeeded in taking statements which implicated 24 boys.
The Grand Jury hearing which resulted in indictments for murder and assault was conducted in a most unusual manner. The general practice is to allow witnesses to tell in their own words what information they have regarding the case in question. In the Sleepy Lagoon case the procedure was altered so that the statements were in fact formulated by the officers — and acquiesced to out of fear. One after the other complex, accusatory "questions" were asked, and the answer was monotonously "yes" — because that was the answer the cops wanted, and got!
Ayers, a member of the sheriff's foreign relations bureau, charges that Mexicans, because of their Indian blood, have no concept of the value of human life, and when fighting have only a desire "to kill, or at least let blood."
Says Ayers, "The only basis to work from is the biological basis." The Hitler race theory mouthed by a stooge in the Los Angeles sheriff's office.
Of the 24 indicted, two boys requested through their attorney a separate trial, to be heard after the completion of the trial of the other 22. It is significant that they were later released "for lack of evidence"!
The 13-week trial of the 22 boys was presided over by Judge Charles G. Fricke, experienced, shrewd — with a record of anti-Mexican feeling.
A few years ago Judge Fricke convicted and sentenced five Mexican boys on charges of rape to a maximum of 250 years in prison each. The first court to which an appeal was taken not only reversed the decision of Judge Fricke, but made pointed reference to his apparent prejudice.
At one point, when a defense attorney asked that a witness by instructed of her rights, Judge Fricke answered, "I can't take the time."
The main weakness of the defense was lack of unity — five attorneys representing 22 boys. Several weeks after the trial was in progress, Judge Lester Roth was requested to take over the entire defense. It was agreed to by the defendants and by the defense attorneys, but Judge Fricke would not allow the short recess necessary to permit Judge Roth to acquaint himself with the facts of the case.
On the jury was not one person of Mexican extraction, not one man or woman with children within the age limits of the defendants (16-20). The hostility toward the boys on the part of certain members of the jury was obvious to those who sat through the trial day after day.
Throughout the long trial the defendants were denied the right to confer with counsel during court sessions, the excuse given by Judge Fricke being that there was not enough room to allow them to sit at tables with their attorneys.
Instead, the boys were huddled together like criminals, seated alphabetically directly across from the jury. The prosecutors, on the other hand, conferred constantly with state's witnesses.
Deputy District Attorney Shoemaker took great pains to insure that the jury received the worst impression possible of the defendants. He gave instructions to Jailer Fitzgerald that the boys were not to be allowed haircuts or change of clothing.
One month after the trial began, two months after their arrest, the boys were still wearing the same clothes. Their hair, normally worn in the long style affected by many Mexican youth, was long enough to give them a disreputable appearance.
Shoemaker admitted giving these instructions. "The defendants," he said, "have a distinctive appearance and for purposes of identification this distinctive appearance should be maintained."
It was adequate proof of guilt to Mr. Shoemaker that most of the boys wore trousers that were narrow at the ankles and wore their hair in a style which differed from his.
Many of the boys were beaten after their arrest. In every case where beating was charged the prosecution put the accused officer or officers on the stand to protest
Henry's attorney, Anna Zacsek, happened to walk into a room where Henry was immediately after he had been beaten. She saw his bruised face, bleeding mouth, saw him vomit from blows in the stomach. Miss Zacsek offered to testify to Henry's condition, but Judge Fricke maintained that she would be disqualified to act as Henry's attorney if she did.
For more than three months testimony was heard, testimony which filled 12 volumes, covered 6032 pages. Yet nowhere in all that testimony was there any evidence that any of the boys on trial ever went near Jose Diaz!
A prosecution witness testified that Diaz had been drinking heavily all day and was lying in the roadway near the ranch house and might have been killed as the result of a car backing into his body.
The prosecution claimed that all 22 were guilty of murder because there had existed a conspiracy to commit a crime. Apparently the proof of conspiracy was never made to the jury — the jury which brought back such a harsh verdict.
Had they been convinced that a conspiracy existed they would have had to find all 22 guilty of murder, and in the same degree. Instead, five were acquitted, five were convicted of assault, nine were convicted of murder in the second degree and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and three were convicted of murder in the first degree and two counts of assault.
Don't try to figure it out — it just doesn't make sense.
Seventeen young kids convicted and serving sentences as high as life imprisonment! Seventeen kids convicted before they were tried. Convicted by such things as the article in Sensation Magazine published in December 1942 (the trial was going on) under the by-line of Clem Peoples of the Los Angeles sheriff's office. Peoples'
They were convicted by the hysterical press which inflamed the minds of the people through the nation to an unreasoning hatred of the boys on trial. Convicted by a jury which was free to read the poisonous stories night after night for 13 weeks. Convicted, who can say, whether out of stupidity or out of shrewd reasoning of the disunifying effect on the people of the nation and of all the Latin American countries.
Today 17 boys are in prison as the result of a gross miscarriage of justice. The case is on appeal. Here is what you can do as an individual or as a member of an organization to insure the success of the appeal:
- Donate generously to help meet the costs involved.
- Order the pamphlet THE SLEEPY LAGOON CASE, in English or Spanish, for distribution to friends and members of your organization.
- Write Governor Earl Warren (Sacremento, California) urging that he free the 17 boys. Send copies to Attorney General Robert Kenny (Sacremento, California) and District Attorney Fred Howser (Los Angeles, California).
Send donations to: Sleepy Lagoon Defense, 206 South Spring Street Room 342 Los Angeles 12, California
Courtesy of Dept of Special Collections/UCLA Library, A1713 Charles E. Young Research Library, 405 Hilgard Ave, Box 951575, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1575; http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/special/scweb/
Title: The Sleepy Lagoon case : pageant of prejudice
By: McGrath, Alice Greenfield, 1917-, Author
Contributing Institution: Dept of Special Collections/UCLA Library, A1713 Charles E. Young Research Library, 405 Hilgard Ave, Box 951575, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1575; http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/special/scweb/
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Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee
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