Sleepy Lagoon Trials: 1942-43

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Sleepy Lagoon Trials: 1942-43

Defendants: Manuel Delgado, Henry Leyvas, John Matuz, Jack Melendez, Angel Padilla, Ysmael Parra, Manuel Reyes, Chepe Ruiz, Robert Telles, Victor Thompson, Henry Ynostroza, Gus Zammora et al.
Crimes Charged: Murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder, misdemeanor assault
Chief Defense Lawyers: George E. Shibley, et al.
Chief Prosecutors: John Barnes, Clyde Shoemaker
Judge: Charles W. Fricke
Place: Los Angeles, California
Date of Trial: October 19, 1942-January 12, 1943
Verdicts: The defendants listed above were all convicted on all counts. Three others were convicted of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder, two were convicted of misdemeanor assault, and five were acquitted on all counts.
Sentences: Leyvas, Ruiz, Telles: life imprisonment for first-degree murder; Delgado, Matuz, Melendez, Padilla, Parra, Reyes, Ruiz, Telles, Thompson, Ynostroza, Zammora: five years to life imprisonment for second-degree murder

SIGNIFICANCE: The Sleepy Lagoon case was one of the major civil rights cases of the 1940s and exacerbated ethnic tensions which culminated in Los Angeles' "Zoot Suit Riots" of 1943.

Late at night on August 1, 1942, eight to ten uninvited young men were ordered to leave a birthday party at the east Los Angeles ranch home of the Delgadillo family. The party crashers ended up half a mile away on a "lover's lane," where they assaulted several young people parked by a reservoir nicknamed "Sleepy Lagoon." The victims of the beating returned to their own neighborhood, collected a large group of friends, and returned to confront their attackers. Finding no one there, they followed the sound of music to the nearby Delgadillo party. What happened when they arrived would never be clear, but a brawl erupted inside and around the Delgadillo house.

Police arrived to find two stabbing victims. They also discovered 22-year-old Jose Diaz dying nearby on the roadside. Authorities blamed Diaz's death and the fight at the Delgadillo house on a perceived "Mexican youth gang" problem in Los Angeles. Intending to extinguish gang-related crime, police used Diaz's death as a pretext to arrest hundreds of young Mexicans and Mexican-Americans for offenses ranging from weapons possession to minor charges like vagrancy, curfew violation, "unlawful assemblage," or possessing a draft card with an incorrect address.

By the end of the week, between 300 and 600 people had been detained in nightly police sweeps. Police singled out young "zoot suiters," who wore extravagant wide trousers, drape jackets, and flamboyant hats. Twenty-two of the detainees were charged with murder and assault, while two others were indicted as juvenile offenders. They became known as the "Sleepy Lagoon defendants." Prosecutors accused them of being members of a teenaged "gang," which had conspired to crash the Delgadillo party in search of the group that had attacked them earlier. Since Jose Diaz was allegedly killed during a fight resulting from this conspiracy, the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were held collectively responsible for Diaz's murder.

American participation in World War II played a major role in how the case was viewed. Conservative dailies like the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Examiner railed against "zoot suit hoodlums," but skeptics derided the trial. The California Eagle, Los Angeles' African-American weekly, accused the conservative press of manufacturing fake "crime waves" perpetrated by minority young people in order to perpetuate segregation. Each side accused the other of aiding Nazi attempts to sow discord in the United States during wartime. Worried over reports that the Axis powers were using the trial to encourage a fascist "fifth column" in his country, Mexico's consul accused the prosecution and the conservative Los Angeles press of being motivated by racism.

Zoot Suit Riots

Prosecutors withheld clean clothing and haircuts from the Sleepy Lagoon defendants for two months preceding the trial, so that the accused would look like stereotypical "boy gangsters" when they appeared in court. Pressure from civic groups eventually convinced the district attorney to rescind the clothing ban and offer haircuts to the prisoners. When testimony began on October 19, 1942, however, the typecasting continued. One prosecution witness, Lieutenant Edward Duran Ayres of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, testified that Mexicans had a racial propensity for violence, rooted in a pre-Columbian disregard for human life exemplified by Aztec sacrifices. More specific prosecution testimony included identifications by guests at the Delgadillo party and statements to police by the defendants, several of whom incriminated each other. On January 12, 1943, all but five of the 22 Sleepy Lagoon defendants were convicted of murder or assault.

The civil rights implications of the case and Judge Charles Fricke's controversial conduct of the trial created wide support for the defendants. Locally, the trial was denounced by community activists, Chicano organizations, and Hollywood celebrities like Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn, and Rita Hayworth. The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, which was formed to obtain a new trial, attracted nationwide support from labor unions, diplomatic groups, and press guilds. By the time the defendants began serving their sentences, the racial atmosphere in Los Angeles was poisonous. In June of 1943, a rumor that gang members had beaten several U.S. Navy sailors on shore leave prompted hundreds of servicemen to rampage through Mexican-American communities in Los Angeles and other southern California cities. Although the rioters' violence was initially directed against anyone wearing a "zoot suit," any young men with brown or black skin were targeted and beaten, often while police watched. Naval authorities could not restrain the attacks, which lasted for over a week and resulted in hundreds of serious injuries. Incredibly, no one was killed in what became known as the "Zoot Suit Riots."

"Tangible and Substantial Evidence is Woefully Lacking"

The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee's efforts were successful on October 4, 1944, when the three-judge 2nd District Court of Appeal unanimously reversed all the guilty verdicts. The court rejected the appellants' contention that Diaz might have been killed by a car or a fall, citing autopsy evidence that he had died from a brain hemorrhage brought on by a blow to the head with an instrument. The court ruled that criminality was involved in Diaz's death. Yet they found no evidence in the 6,000-page trial transcript that connected any of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants to Diaz's death. Apart from one defendant tied to a stabbing during the Delgadillo "free for all" only by inconsistent identifications, the judges similarly found no evidence connecting the defendants with armed assaults. The reversal also ruled that testimony in which several of the accused implicated their codefendants should have been stricken as hearsay and noted that police did not dispute that some of the statements were elicited by jailhouse beatings.

The court agreed that the defendants had returned to Sleepy Lagoon intending to have a fist fight with the youths who had attacked them and their friends. The indictments, however, specifically charged them with conspiring to invade the Delgadillo home with weapons, intending to commit murder. As such, the indictments did not apply to the facts of the case.

While the court ruled that "tangible and substantial evidence" was "woefully lacking," it also extensively criticized Judge Fricke's sarcastic and dictatorial conduct of the trial. "Constant bickering and quarreling with counsel by the court was not conducive to the creation of judicial atmosphere," agreed the appellate judges. Judge Fricke had "materially injured" the defendants' right to a fair trial by denigrating the professional ethics of the defense attorneys and berating their conduct "when in most instances, not even a mild rebuke was deserved." Fricke's multiple errors included a decree that lack of space was an acceptable reason for preventing the five defense lawyers from conferring or even sitting with their clients in the courtroom. If a room is too small for proper trial proceedings, said the appeal decision, "it is not the Constitution or the rights guaranteed by it that must yield."

The court, in agreement with California's attorney general and the defense lawyers, dispensed with a customary waiting period before deeming the original verdict excessive. Facing a unanimous appellate decision and lacking any new evidence to justify a new trial, the Los Angeles district attorney declined to prosecute the case a second time. After experiencing one of the most criticized trials in Los Angeles history and a year in San Quentin penitentiary, the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were released and their records were cleared. The trial was the inspiration for Luiz Valdez's acclaimed 1978 play Zoot Suit and his 1981 film of the same name.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

"Conviction of 12 Reversed in Sleepy Lagoon Murder." Los Angeles Times (October 5, 1944): 1.

Kinloch, John. "Mexicans Face Police Terror Round-Ups; Vile Press Slurs." California Eagle (November 5, 1942): IA, 7B.

Maz6n, Mauricio. The Zoot Suit Riots. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.

Tobar, Hector. "Sleepy Lagoon Victims Laud Their Champion." Ldos Angeles Times (April 20, 1997): B-1.