SLEEPY LAGOON CASE - Chronology
- APRIL 1942:
Executive order 9066 "relocates" Japanese and Japanese-Americans to camps.
- JUNE, JULY, 1942:
Hearst press and other metropolitan papers carry unsubstantiated, racist stories of "crime wave by pachuco, zoot-suit gangsters."
- AUGUST 2, 1942:
Jose Diaz found dead after free-for-all fights at a ranch near reservoir nicknamed Sleepy Lagoon.
Police dragnet pulls in more than 300 young people, most of them Mexican-Americans. They are threatened and beaten. Grand Jury indicts 24 boys on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and two charges of assault with a deadly weapon.
- OCTOBER 13, 1942:
Twenty-two boys (ages 16-22) tried en masse.
- JANUARY 12, 1943:
The verdict. Three convicted of 1st degree murder and 2 assaults (sentenced to life imprisonment); nine convicted of 2nd degree murder and 2 assaults (sentenced to 5 years to life); five convicted of assault; five acquitted.
SLEEPY LAGOON DEFENSE COMMITTEE undertakes publicity and fund-raising to finance a legal appeal for the twelve convicted of murder. Ben Margolis retained as counsel for appeal.
- MAY, JUNE, 1943:
Attacks on zoot-suiters begin at Aragon Ballroom. Counter-attack against servicemen alleged. Sailors roam Los Angeles beating and tearing clothes off pachucos. Soldiers and civilians join in assaults against zoot-suiters, pachucos, blacks. Metropolitan press applauds "war on zoot-suiters."
- NOVEMBER 1943:
508-page appeal brief prepared by Ben Margolis with Selma Bachelis and others, filed with Second District Court of Appeal.
- MAY 15, 1944
Ben Margolis makes oral argument to appellate court.
- OCTOBER 4, 1944:
By unanimous decision, all convictions reversed by appellate court.
Defendants released. Two originally indicted granted separate trials; never brought to trial.
- APRIL 1978:
ZOOT SUIT, a play by Luis Valdez based on Sleepy Lagoon case and servicemen's riots opens in Los Angeles at Mark Taper Forum.
The trial lasted thirteen weeks. The transcript is 6000 pages.
For the first month of the trial the defendants were not permitted hair cuts or change of clothing.
The accused were not permitted to sit with their lawyers, but were massed together, seated alphabetically facing the jury. Defense counsel were not allowed to confer with their clients during recess, by order of the court.
A major problem was the lack of a unified defense. Five lawyers represented twenty-two boys. (Two of the original twenty-four had asked for separate trials. They were never brought to trial) Several weeks into the trial, Judge Lester Roth was asked to take over the defense. He agreed and twenty of the defendants assented. Judge Fricke would not allow a two-week continuance for Roth to prepare. The trial continued with five lawyers, two of whom -- George Shibley and Ben Van Tress -- were mainly responsbile for laying the groundwork for appeal.
The trial judge was consistently rude and sarcastic to defense counsel. He rebuked then inappropriately. He disparaged their legal ability, ethics and understanding. He consistently overruled motions by the defense and inconsistently consistently ruled favorably on like motions by the prosection. He was unfailingly courteous and helpful to the prosecution.
Not one of the jurors was Latino. None had children in the age range of the defendants.
The jury had access to and did, in fact, read newspaper and magazine articles which inflamed the public against Mexicans, zoot-suits and pachucoas. Day after day, before and during the trial, the press made the terms pachuco and zoot-suiter synonymous with gangster, mobster, hoodlum, killer.
Some members of the jury showed open hostility to the boys in the opposite box.
BIGOTRY IN ACTION - "EXPERTS" REPORT.
The Grand Jury which indicted the Sleepy Lagoon defendants heard a report titled "Statistics" which stated in part:
"...Let us view it from the biological basis -- in fact, as the main basis to work from....total disregard for human life has always been universal throughout the Americas among the Indian population, which of course is well known to everyone...Anglo-Saxon...youths...may kick each other...which is considered unsportive...but this Mexican element...feels a desire to use a knife or other lethal weapon...his desire is to kill, or at least draw blood..."
This document, remarkable for its ignorance and illiteracy, was signed by Ed. Duran Ayres, Los Angeles sheriff's department office Foreign RElations[sic] Bureau!
Clem Peoples, Chief of the Criminal Dvision of the same office, who testified at the trial, allowed an article to be published over his signature in a lurid magazine called "Sensation" It appeared in December 1942 while the trial was in progress. In it the defendants are described as "baby mobsters." "young wolves," "cruel young gangsters," and a "blood-thirsty mob." He implied acts of violence by the defendants without basis in fact.
THE DEFENDANTS (APPELLANTS)
Convicted of murder in the first degree: Henry Leyvas, Robert Telles, Jose Ruiz Convicted of murder in the second degree: Manuel Delgado, John Matuz, Jack Melendez, Angel Padilla, Ysmael (Smiles) Parra, Manuel Reyes, Victor Thompson, Henry Ynostroza, Gus Zamora.
All twelve were also convicted of the two counts of assault with a deadly weapon.
The prosecution and press presented them as demons, gangsters, vicious goons. Some of their advocates wanted them presented as perfect gentlemen. They were neither. There were twelve different personalities, histories and characters. Ten were Mexican-Americans, or as we would identify them today - Chicanos. One was a Mexican national. One was an Anglo/pachuco. Of the three convicted of 1st degree murder, two are dead and one does not wish to be public. Of the nine convicted of 2nd degree murder one, Zamora, is dead. The others have, in the main, led ordinary lives and are now grandparents. Zamora's name was arbitrarily assigned to identify the case.
Ben was not much interested in manufacturing a public image of the defendants, though the wholesale character assassination by the press was important to the case. Ben emphasized the fundamental issues, which had nothing to do with the good or bad character of those involved. The issues were racism and constitutional rights.
The appeal brief, 508 pages long, asked for reversal on many grounds, including misconduct of the trial judge, denial to the defendants of their constitutional rights, a community temper which made a fair trial impossible, the hearing of masses of inadmissable evidence, and inconsistency between the verdicts. Murder was not proven; Diaz' death may have been accidental.
Without a case, the prosecution relied on the theory of conspiracy and the appeal brief, summarizing the evidence by defense and prosecution witnesses, showed that no proof of conspiracy existed. Further, if the jury had believed or understood the consequences of a showing of conspiracy, they would have had to convict all the defendants and in the same degree. Instead, there was a peculiar jumble of convictions and acquittals in no way related to an intelligent reading of the record.
ORAL ARGUMENTS to APPELLATE COURT
On oral arguments were made. The three judges listened politely to the argument of the State. Then Ben Margolis began his argument and the demeanor of the judges changed from courteous attention to intense interest.
Ben was brilliant. His argument was forceful and cogent. His manner was dramatic without being histrionic. The passion of his beliefs was palpable. It was a masterful presentation -- controlled and eloquent.
It has been forty years since that day in court, but the memory of listening to Ben with admiration and hope remains a vivid memory.
66 C.A.2d 166; 152 P.2d 180
PEOPLE v. ZAMMORA - THE APPEALS COURT DECISION
Written by Judge White, with the concurrence of Judges York and Doran, the appellate court decision reversed all of the convictions, confirmed that there was no basis for the charge of conspiracy, affirmed that the trial judge "...injured materially the defense of the appellants..." by his insulting remarks to defense counsel, by (unwarranted) rebukes, and by failing to make provisions for consultation between defendants and their counsel. Examples of misconduct of the judge quoted:
"Mr. Van Tress (defense attorney): I object to counsel leading the witness.
"Mr. Barnes (prosecution): This is not leading the witness.
"The Court: I would suggest, Mr. Van Tress, you have ...(objected) that a question is leading, will you please look up during the noon hour just what a leading question is?
"Mr. Van Tress: ...I haven't repeated objections.
"The Court: Somebody is using ventriloquism; we have a Charlie McCarthy using Mr. Tress' (sic) voice.
(Mr. Van Tress asks for page and line of the transcript)
"The Court: Mr. Van Tress, I am afraid you have been asleep...
"Mr. Van Tress: I resent the court's remarks...I have not been asleep.
"The Court: You evidently did not hear what has been going on in the last five minutes.
"Mr. Shibley: I think that should be assigned as misconduct.
"The Court: Go ahead and make your assignment of misconduct It is about time for you to make another one anyway.
"Mr. Shibley: .... counsel ...has in effect coached the witness.
"The Court: ...I want to say that I resent that, Mr. Shibley: It is a statement absolutely unworthy of any respectable member of the Bar. It was vicious and wholly uncalled for...
The appellate judges concluded that "...it is impossible to ascertain with the slightest degree of certainty what occurred during the incidents involved in the case..."
They found that much inadmissable evidence was allowed to be heard.
From the appellate decision to reverse:
LEYVAS: "...it is apparent that there is absolutely no evidence whatever to directly connect defendant Leyvas with any assault upon...Diaz...no evidence to connect him with assaults (in counts II & III..."
RUIZ: "...evidence does not in anywise connect him with having made an assault upon Diaz" ...(or with the other charges).
TELLES: "Nowhere in the evidence are we able to discern any testimony connecting this defendant with any assault against Diaz... (or the others)..."
DELGADO: "Manifestly...there was no evidence whatever to connect him (with) ...homicide...or assault..."
And the same conclusion is reached for each of the other defendants with respect to murder, conspiracy, or felony assault. Conflicting testimony would, at most, implicate two of the defendants in simple assault.
In spite of overwhelming evidence, the appellate court denied the influence of racism. To acknowledge indigenous racism while we were at war with Hitler's racism would have been a political embarrassment. The Court gave the Sleepy Lagoon defendants their freedom and allowed Ben Margolis a legal victory, but refused to confront the social/political issues which he had strikingly presented.
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: Sleepy Lagoon case : chronology
By: McGrath, Alice Greenfield, 1917-, Author
Date: ca. 1983
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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Alice Greenfield McGrath
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