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Revisiting the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial

If you were accused of a crime that you did not commit, how confident are you that you would be found innocent? And what injuries and injustices could you endure before your innocence was finally proven?

I think about these questions often, after having devoted nearly a decade to studying the People v. Zammora, more popularly known as the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. How was it possible that 17 young men were found guilty of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, or assault with a deadly weapon, when the forensic evidence could not connect the accused to the crime, and the state could never produce a confession, an eye witness, a murder weapon, or even a motive. The accused young men did not even know who the murder victim was. And yet, after three months of trial, a jury of men and women – all white – found the defendants guilty of some role in José Diaz’s death.

How could this happen?

The progressive activists who worked to reverse the convictions of the Sleepy Lagoon boys blamed an “anti-Mexican” tone taken by the Hearst-owned newspapers that poisoned the social climate. A host of scholars since then have run with that thesis, although, I think, uncritically so. The Hearst newspapers were not the major news outlet in Los Angeles, nor were they the only newspapers in circulation. And the period was, after all, already profoundly shaped by segregationist laws underwritten by deeply embedded ideas about race and rights. So I’m not sure what “anti-Mexican” would have looked like within this particular context. Either way, the claim that both a grand jury and a trial jury reached a guilty verdict solely because of the Hearst newspapers should require some kind of evidence beyond the charge. This is something that the activists never produced, nor can such evidence be found in sifting through the historical record now.

Something else had to be at work.

Unfortunately, the jurors were never interviewed, so it is difficult to know what they found compelling in the state’s case. However, there are indications that a number of factors played against the accused.

As I dug deeper into the historical record, it became clear to me that one of the greatest injustices in the trail began even before the proceedings got underway. Some of the boys had a public defender assigned to them, but others hired whom they could afford. The seven attorneys who gathered around the defense table varied greatly in courtroom experience, and they never managed to see themselves as a team, or that they were involved in a collective cause. Each worked individually for their respective clients, and in doing so, openly clashed with each other in court over their different objectives.

George Shibley was perhaps the sole exception among the defense attorneys. He was an instinctive fighter, and he could be relentless in pursuit of his cause. As a result, he laid down a pattern of objections to the procedure that an appeals lawyer was able to later successfully build upon, but Shibley’s doing so also came at great a price. In reading the trial transcript decades later, the judge’s animosity towards Shibley is still palpable. The judge grew increasingly irritated at Shibley’s constant objections, to the point where he began to openly belittle Shibley during the trial and even threatened to have him thrown out of the courtroom. The jury took all of this in.

Even something as simple as how to seat seven defense attorneys and 22 defendants came into play. While the attorneys crowded around the defense table, the trial judge thought it practical to seat the defendants together on benches opposite the jury. Some of the defense attorneys objected that their clients were being denied access to representation with this arrangement, but the judge ruled against them by pointing out that the defendants could confer with their attorneys during recess and before and after the trial was in session.

It probably didn’t help, either, that the accused young men were openly flippant, if not irreverent, during the three-month proceeding. They either did not fully grasp the seriousness of the charge, or they were tremendously confident of their innocence. Either way, they giggled, poked each other, rolled their eyes, and some even took to imitating some of their own attorneys behind their back, all within full view of the jury. None of this constitutes culpability, but again, the jury took it all in. By the time the trial approached its conclusion, the contempt that jury members had for the accused was clearly manifest in their faces.

Zoot suits by Aaron F. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Zoot suits were a type of clothing popular among African Americans and Mexican Americans during the 1940s. They were used as a status symbol in the case when the defendants were not allowed to change their clothing during the trial. Five men in modernized zoot suits by Aaron F. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What was most egregious to me as I poured through the trial transcript, however, was that not one of the attorneys appears to have critically examined the evidence of the case. The Appellate Court later ruled that much of the evidence introduced by the state was inadmissible, such as statements made after arrest without an attorney present that were used to incriminate co-defendants. But not one of the defense attorneys ever raised an objection about this evidence. In fact, at no point did anyone of the defense ever produce a simple timeline of events that would have clearly shown that the accused were not present at the time that José Diaz received his mortal wounds, and although they arrived on scene later, only one of them seems to have seen him as he lay dying. Not one attorney ever raised the issue that the state, in lacking a confession, eye witnesses, or incriminating forensic evidence, failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

After two years dedicated work, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, comprised of a mix of celebrities and progressive activists, succeeded in getting the case heard on appeal. In noting that the state put its full weight in protecting the rights and liberties of José Diaz, as well as the Mexican American families who had been attacked by the defendants, the Appellate Court rejected the charge that racism played a role in the prosecution of the case. However, the court agreed that the judge undermined the integrity of the defense in belittling Shibley in front of the jury. In reviewing the evidence, the court also sympathized that the jury, “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”. Perhaps most importantly, the court found that the judge’s decision to seat the defendants away from their attorneys effectively denied them adequate representation, and ultimately, due process. The court reversed the conviction and ordered the boys released from prison.

The success of the case on appeal was hailed as a victory for justice, and the People v Zammora is now a landmark case in California law protecting the rights of the accused. I would not disagree with any of this. But I have to wonder, still, at what cost was justice served in this case? Would I be comfortable with a legal process that took up to two years to conclude, all the while waiting behind bars? The precarious balance of justice in this case still frightens me. Were it not for the dedication of a handful of committed volunteers, I don’t know that the decision would have ever been reversed, and some of the boys could easily have spent the rest of their lives in prison for a crime they did not commit.

Featured image credit: Judge Gavel by George Hodan. CC0 1.0 via Public Domain Pictures.

Recent Comments

  1. El roam

    Thanks for that interesting post . Paradoxically , evidences are not the real issue in a criminal case . One may present forensic evidence, eyewitness, murder weapon and so forth…. And yet , none of them would do it !! Since , One may connect clearly and conclusively , the suspect to the crime scene , yet , it would only prove , that the suspect was holding the knife for example ( as murder weapon ) and even in the crime scene , and even in the right time line position , but it wouldn’t prove that he is the killer sought .

    Conviction , can be achieved solely by circumstantial evidences , and even less than that . Because, finally, the judge must prevail, a judge can’t assert that he doesn’t have sufficient evidence for conviction, or for acquittal. In such , the mere issue , is whether , the defendant has committed the crime , or not , and not the sufficiency of the evidences .

    Trust me , I can present to you , cases , where one person for example , found guilty , for rape , 20 years ago , thanks to a dream or intrusive nightmare , reviving or even forming cognitive reliable trauma , proven to be representing ( with other circumstantial evidence ) a real event or rape that took place , far back in the past . An expert , has simply testified , that in psychiatric terms , the trauma , is in medical terms , reliable .

    That is why, a jury, composed of layman, not professionals , is a real disaster sometimes , it takes hel of delicate and complicated engineering work for convicting it criminal case .


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