Twenty-two Sleepy Lagoon defendants, all Mexican-Americans except one, were indicted in August, 1942 for murder of Jose Diaz and for assault with intent to kill Cruz Reyes and Joe Manfredi. The defendants were tried in a mass trial which extended many weeks, Five were acquitted, five were convicted of minor offenses, and 12 were convicted of murder of Diaz, three in the 1st degree and nine in the 2nd degree. These 12 were also found guilty of assault with intent to kill Reyes and Manfredi.

The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee undertook the appeal of these 12 defendants in the belief that they had not received a fair trial, and that the convictions were due to anti-Mexican prejudice which had been built up in Los Angeles to disrupt unity and to hamper the prosecution of the war.

The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee retained the firm of Katz, Gallagher and Margolis to prosecute the appeal from the conviction.

The unanimous decision of the District Court of Appeal was written by Judge Thomas P. White and concurred in by Judge John M. York the Presiding Judge, and by Judge William C. Doran. The decision consists of 121 typewritten pages.

The following excerpts and explanatory comment summarize the important points and highlights of the decision.


On the night of August 1, 1942, a birthday party was in progress at the Delgadillo home on the Williams ranch located in the City of Los Angeles near Slauson and Atlantic Boulevards. Nearby was a little pond called the Sleepy Lagoon.

On the same evening several of the defendants and some of their friends, both boys and girls, were beaten up at the Sleepy Lagoon by some boys known as the "Downey boys." The defendants who were beaten up left the Sleepy Lagoon and later returned for the purpose of "fighting it out" with the boys from Downey "with their fists."

In the meantime, as the Court decision points out, there had been "some eight or eleven uninvited persons at the Delgadillo party and that most of them were the "Downey boys." Two of the Downey boys started trouble at the party earlier in the evening because they were refused beer. An argument had resulted and one of them had seized a chair in a threatening manner.

"In other words, all was not peace and tranquility at the Delgadillo party prior to the arrival of appellants."

The defendants and their friends did not find the Downey boys at the Sleepy Lagoon, and for one reason or another went to the Delgadillo party. The Court found that some went because it was a "good party" that others went there to find the Downey boys, and other for no special purpose and without knowledge that a party was in progress. The Court said that:

"At all events, it can be said that the evidence does not reflect any unanimity of purpose."

Some time after the defendants arrived in the vicinity of the Delgadillo premises, as the Court put it, "a general free for all fight ensued." Jose Diaz, who had been a guest at the party was found unconscious outside of the Delgadillo property after the fight was over. As to him, the Court said:


"There is no evidence as to his whereabouts or actions during the `free for all' fight involving the defendants. People's witnesses testified that he was seen leaving the Delgadillo premises, accompanied by two other guests who were not produced as witnesses, several minutes before the arrival of any of the defendants."


The prosecution claimed that the defendants together with their friends, boys and girls all ranging in age from 14 to 22, had entered into a conspiracy which "as the result of their malignant hearts was to commit murder in satisfaction of their lust for revenge" because a number of them had been beaten up by the Downey boys that evening.

On this charge the Court said:

"We have painstakingly read the reporter's transcript in this case, containing, as it does, more than 6,000 pages. We have studiously read and considered the briefs filed herein, which total some 1400 pages, and from a reading thereof we are persuaded that there is no substantial evidence to support the claim that when the defendants left the vicinity of Long Beach and Vernon Avenues they had "murder in their hearts" or even that they had then formed any intent to go to the Delgadillo home."


"...it belies the record to assert that what happened subsequently at the Delgadillo party was the result of a collective intent upon the part of the defendants to commit murder, and that the conduct, behavior and actions upon the part of the defendants at the party manifested a conspiracy to commit murder or assaults with intent to commit murder."

The Court said further that "the jury, by their verdicts, rejected the theory of the prosecution that the defendants had engaged in a conspiracy; and we think rightly so.."

"...our examination of the record in this case convinces us that there is a complete lack of evidence from which the Jury could properly find or infer that the appellants formed a conspiracy of the kind and type or for the purposes claimed by the prosecution "......" to say that they combined together with the avowed purpose of committing murder does violence to the factual situation presented by the record herein."


The Court summarized the evidence as to each individual defendant and considered the evidence against him. We quote from these summaries.

HENRY LEYVAS (Convicted of murder in the 1st degree).

"From the foreging recital, it is at once apparent that there is absolutely no testimony whatever to directly connect defendant Leyvas with any assault upon the deceased, Jose Diaz, nor is there any evidence to connect him with an assault upon the victims mentioned in counts II and III (Reyes and Manfredi) with intent to commit murder."

The prosecution, according to the Court, "lay great stress" upon the fact that Leyvas had given a false statement and thus evidenced his guilt. But the Appeal Court found other reasons for Leyvas' false statements, as follows:

"This we cannot concede, because a reading of the record indicates that this defendant refused to admit his presence at the scene of the alleged offenses because he was not permitted to consult with his attorney or to see any of his friends, and furthere because of the fact that force and violence was used upon him by the officers. In this latter regard, it is noteworthy that this defendant's claim that he was beaten by the officers was not denied."

JOSE RUIZ (Convicted of 1st degree murder).

"It would only prolong this opinion to set out other evidence of and concerning this defendant which, suffice it to say, does not in anywise connect him with having made an assault upon the deceased Diaz or with having engaged in an altercation with either of the victims named in counts II and III."


ROBERT TELLES (Convicted of 1st degree murder).

"Nowhere in the evidence are we able to discern any testimony connecting this defendant with any assault upon the deceased Diaz, or upon either of the victims named in counts II and III of the indictment."

The remaining defendants were found guilty of murder of Diaz in the 2nd degree and guilty of assualt with intent to murder Reyes and Manfredi.


"To summarize the prosecution's case against this defendant, it may well be said that no witness, other than Joe Manfredi, testified that Delgado was in the patio, and except for that, no witness testified that this defendandt did anything except as declared by him in his statement. Manifestly, as to him, there was no evidence whatever to connect him as an actor in the homicide or either of the assaults charged in the indictment."


"This defendant did not testify at the trial or deny any of the aforesaid evidence, but we fail to see wherein it in anywise directly connects this defendant with the assaults made upon either the deceased Diaz or the victims mentioned in counts II and III. Nevertheless, this defendant was convicted of murder in the second degree and of two counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder."


"Other than that this defendant was at the Delgadillo home; that he had a 22 caliber rifle; that he fired the same some distance from the Delgadillo home, there is no testimony to connect him with the homicide or either of the assaults charged. Neither is there any testimony that this defendant used the gun as a club, or in any manner whatsoever other than as herein-above narrated."

Everyone considered that the rifle had nothing to do with the death of Diaz. It was uncontradicted that he had fired two shots at telephone poles and had put the rifle in his car that morning for the purpose of hunting rabbits.


"There is no evidence of any kind connecting this defendant with the alleged murder of Jose Diaz charged in count I, or the alleged assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder upon Cruz Reyes charged in count III of this indictment."

As to the charge in count II of the indictment that Parra had stabbed Manfredi, the Court found that there was some testimony. This testimony was carefully analyzed by the Court and the Court found that the State's witnesses had so contradicted themselves and were in such conflict with each other that the testimony was "unsatisfactory and as well unconvincing."

This is the only charge of the 36 charges against the 12 defendants on which the Court found that the evidence was merely insufficient. In the other cases the evidence was totally lacking.


"Notwithstanding the absence of any evidence that the appellant Reyes participated in any of the assaults, he was convicted of murder in the second degree and of both counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder as charged in the indictment."


"We have read the testimony given by this defendant before the Grand Jury and find therein nothing which tends to incriminate him. In fact his testimony may be epitomized by his statement that he "never touched anybody"; a statement which, so far as we can ascertain from the record, is undisputed by any admissible evidence. Neither through any identification, or any admission is this defendant connected with either the homicide or the assaults charged in the indictment."



"So far as any activities upon the part of this defendant is concerned, it may be summarized by his won statement that he struck a man with his fist. The identity of the man so struck is not established by the evidence, and certainly it cannot be said that it was either the deceased Diaz or Reyes or Manfredi, named as victims in the assaults charged in Counts II and III. While the evidence indicates that this defendant witnessed some assaults, there is no evidence that he was either armed or participated in any other than the just mentioned simple assault."


The testimony concerning this defendant

"...fails in anywise to specifically connect this defendant with the murder charged in count I or the assaults with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder charged in counts II and III."


"When the admissible evidence is separated from the inadmissible, as we have done in the foregoing narrative of the factual background surrounding this prosecution, it becomes apparent that, except as to the defendand Parra, ** tangible and substantial evidence is woefully lacking to identify any of these appellants as having committed an assault with any deadly weapon upon either of the victims named in counts II and III, and as to all the appellants the record is devoid of any evidence directly showing that any of them committed an assault upon the decedent Jose Diaz. It is not surprising, however, that the jurors, lacking legal training and experience, found it extremely difficult to keep before them the admissible, as distinguished from the inadmissible evidence in a trial which lasted for 13 weeks, involved 22 defendants and 66 separate charges.

** It has already been stated that even testimony as to Parra was rejected by the Court of Appeal as unsatisfactory.

Referring to the mass of inadmissible statements which were improperly placed before the Jury, the Court said:

"That these statements were highly prejudicial to the co-defendants, against whom they were inadmissible, admits of no doubt or contradiction."


"Notwithstanding instructions of the court that such statements were not to be considered against co-defendants named therein by the declarant, it is obvious, in the light of human experience, that the effect of such statements upon the jury would serve only to injure the cause of the co-defendant so accused and against whom such statements were concededly inadmissible."


"Notwithstanding the admonitions of the court, the prejudicial statements are nevertheless before the jury and to hope that they might be forgotten by the jury in their deliberations is to belie human nature and challenge human experience."


"There is also a total lack of evidence to show that any of the appellants murdered Diaz, and only the unsatisfactory evidence hereinbefore discussed in connection with the defendant Parra, to show that any defendant committed any assault with a deadly weapon. Indeed, respondents confess in their brief that "the evidence, however, in the hands of the prosecution unerrinly pointed to the conclusion that some one or more of the defendants had been perpetrators of the crimes charged," but we are not directeed to any evidence in the record which indentifies any of the appellants with the murder of Diaz or the assaults charged in counts II and III, except the testimony hereinbefore discussed as to appellant Parra in connection with the assault upon Joe Manfredi charged in count II."


The defense cited many instances of misconduct of the judge. The Court of Appeal did not analyze all of these instances but analyzed sufficient of them to be convinced that the trial judge had been unfair and had injured the defense. The Appeal Court


"We are satisifed that the trial judge injured materially the defense of appellants by the character of rebukes he administered in the presence of the jury, when, in most instances, not even a mild rebuke was deserved."

We summarize typical examples.

The Court rebuked a defense attorney for objecting to certain questions as leading and sarcastically suggested that the attorney "lock up during the noon hour just what a leading question is....." The attorney protested that he had not made repeated objections. The judge then said, "Somebody is using ventriloquism; we have a Charlie McCarthy using Mr. Van Tress' voice." Thereupon defense attorney George Shibley assigned the Court's remark as error. The judge then said:

"You can assign it as error. I am getting thoroughly tired of useless and unnecessary objections being made in these proceedings. There is some reason back of the making of these repeated objections."

Mr. Shibley's request to have the judge instruct the Jury to disregard these remarks by the judge was ignored.

Another time the judge accused one of the defense attorneys of being asleep. When defense attorney Shibley sought to assign error on this remark, the judge said, "Go ahead and make your assignment of misconduct. It is about time for you to make another one, anyway." Again the judge refused to instruct the Jury to disregard his remarks — this time vehemently.

Another time the judge characterized a statement by defense counsel as "absolutely unworthy of any respectable member of the Bar. It was vicious and wholly uncalled for...."

A defense attorney trying to protect his client's rights by directing attention to the use of a memorandum by witness was accused by the Judge of "serious misconduct." The Appeal Court reviewing the incident said:

"Instead of being "guilty of serious misconduct" as charged by the court, counsel was, in apparent good faith, attempting to protect the rights of the defendants. This was not only his privilege, but his sworn duty. The reprimand and severe castigation administered by the court was as undeserved as it was unwarranted."

The Appeal Court stated that the "more or less constant bickering and quarreling with counsel by the court was not conducive to the creation of that type of atmosphere that should permeate a judicial inquiry as to the guilt or innocence of those charged with serious crimes." The Appeal Court also noted that "the transcript also reveals numerous occasions where the judge made comments that might well have been omitted." Also that the judge "impaired the effectiveness of the cross-examination."

The judge allowed the appellants to be referred to as members of a "38th Street gang." The Appeal Court said in respect to this:

"Our reading of the record impresses us that considerable of this testimony violated the hearsay rule and should not have been admitted."

The judge allowed the prosecution to question young girl witnesses who did not remember what had occurred (if they ever knew) by reading to them and thus to the jury, their testimony before the Grand Jury. In this way, though these witnesses could not properly testify, their statements reached the Jury. The Appeal Court said that the procedure followed by the prosecutor and permitted by the judge "was neither proper nor legal."

The judge allowed the medical expert called by the prosecution to testify as to the horrible physical condition Diaz might have been in had his death not resulted from his injuries. The Appeal Court stated that this testimony "only served to arouse the emotions, incited the prejudice of the Jury" while adding nothing of "evidenciary value" to the case.

"During the examination of some of the appellants, an attempt was made to show that statements allegedly made by such appellants were not free and voluntary, but were obtained as a result of the use of force, threats, intimidation and fear. Objection to this line of testimony was sustained. These rulings were erroneous....the defense should have been permitted to show all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the making of the alleged admissions from the time the defendants were arrested. Such testimony was clearly material to aid the jury in determining the weight to be given any such statements or admissions."



The Court of Appeal held:

"....we are convinced that a mere reading of the record substantiates the charge that each of these appellants was held in custody longer than the time allowed by section 849, 825 and 858 of the Penal Code. In the cases of appellants Padilla and Ruiz, if they were in custody when their statements were taken on August 3rd, then they were held in custody for a week before being arraigned in court; and as to other appellants the record indicates that they were in custody some four days prior to their arraignment."


The trial was held in a crowded courtroom and difficulties arose over the seating of the defendants because no arrangements had been made to seat them at the counsel table. The defendants were placed in three rows, away from the counsel table opposite the Jury in what, one of the defense attorneys called, a "prisoners dock." The trial judge, on the ground that it was inconvenient, did not allow the defendants to sit with their counsel at the counsel table nor did he allow counsel to sit with their clients. Over the strenuous and continued objection of the defense attorneys, the court did not allow the defendants to leave their seats while the courtroom was in session so that they would be able to discuss matters with their counsel. The Appeal Court summarized the procedure as follows:

"From the foregoing, it is obvious that, under the court's rulings, it was impossible for counsel to leave their table, consult with their clients in another part of the courtroom, and at the same time protect the record and listen to the testimony being given. Likewise, it was not possible for the defendants to call matters to the attention of their counsel while witnesses were testifying, or call attention to claimed inaccuracies in the testimony or to suggest to counsel questions for cross-examination."

We quote further from the Appeal Court's decision, ruling that the defendants had in fact been denied their constitutional right to counsel:

"To us it seems extremely important that, during the progress of a trial, defendants shall have the opportunity of conveying information to their attorneys during the course of the examination of witnesses. The right to be represented by counsel at all stages of the proceedings, guaranteed by both the Federal and State Constitutions, includes the right of conference with the attorney, and such right to confer is at no time more important than during the progress of the trial.


"It is the court's duty to provide adequate quarters and facilities, which the court has the power to do without limitation. (Sec. 144 C.C.F.)."


"That a joint trial of numerous defendants speeds the wheels of justice and provides not only an expeditious but a less burdensome method for disposing of criminal cases furnishes no valid argument for depriving a defendant charged with crime of his right to the effective and substantial aid of counsel at all stages of the proceedings. To do that, as was said in Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 77 L. Rd. 158, "is not to proceed promptly in the calm spirit of regulated justice, but to go forward with the haste of the mob."


"As an assurance against ancient evils of tyrranical governments, our country, in order to preserve "the blessings of liberty" wrote into its basic law the requirements, among others, that the forfeiture of the lives, liberties or property of people accused of crime can only follow if procedural safeguards of due process have been obeyed. To hold under the circumstances here present that the defendants were accorded their constitutional right to "appear and defend in person and with counsel" would simply be to ignore actualities."



Strangely enough the Appeal Court states that "there is no ground revealed by the record upon which it can be said that this prosecution was conceived in, born, or nurtured by the seeds of racial prejudice." The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee and many others who are familiar with the facts believe that this conclusion "belies the record" and the facts which surround it, the arrest and prosecution of the defendants. The Committee has from time to time in its various publications published the facts, which amply establish that an artificially created racial hysteria was the atmosphere in which the defendants were arrested, tried and convicted.

The Committee, therefore, hails the decision as a victory not only for right and justice, but also a victory for the democratic forces in this country which are seeking to unify our people and to eliminate racial prejudice not only from the halls of justice but from every aspect of American life.

NOTE: The publication SLEEPY LAGOON MYSTERY, by the novelist and screen-writer, Guy Endore (illustrations by Giacomo Patri) is still available and can be ordered from the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee at 15¢ per copy or $7.00 per 100.

129 West Second Street Room 302
Los Angeles 12, California

Carey McWilliams, Nat'l Chairman