This is the Story of a 'Crime'

On the night of August 2nd, 1942, hours after a brawl, a man was found dead. Not a single witness could say who struck the man. Not a single witness could say under oath that the man was struck. Yet for this alleged "crime" seventeen boys were convicted—three to life imprisonment, nine to five years to life and five to one year—in the greatest mass betrayal of justice in the history of California law.


On the night in question one Jose Diaz attended a birthday party at a home near a mud puddle derisively called Sleepy Lagoon. There was much drinking. Some unruly guests left after a brawl. Later in the evening a group of youngsters crashed the party. A second fight resulted. Some time later the body of Diaz was found in a roadside ditch. It had neither knife nor bullet wounds. Bruises on hands and knuckles indicated that Diaz had given blows as well as received injuries. Diagnosis established an alcoholic condition. Death was caused by a fractured skull which could have resulted from a drunken fall, or a blow from a car passing or backing up in the dark. Many cars were parked in the area.


These events occurred at a time when zoot suit hysteria was sweeping Los Angeles. Hysteria and justice are not bedfellows. In their zeal, police took into custody hundreds of youngsters from the streets of the Mexican quarter. Eventually 24 were indicted for murder. Some of the 24 voluntarily came to the sheriff's office when informed they were wanted for questioning. That is not the act of murderers. The oldest boy was 22. The youngest 15½. All but two were American-born citizens. American citizenship is not a crime. It should be a blessing. But the boys were of Mexican extraction. One attorney representing two boys asked for a separate trial. Permission was granted. The other 22 were to be tried together.


The trial started. Twenty-two boys came into court, unkempt, long-haired. One of the prosecuting attorneys had forbidden the boys to have a change of clothing or a haircut for over two months! Was this justice or histrionic cunning better reserved for movie plots? Yet it is a matter of record. It took a court order to get the boys a haircut.

There were seven attorneys for the defense when the trial opened. To prevent confusion, it was decided to consolidate the defense under one lawyer. New counsel was agreed upon and a three-day recess was requested for new counsel to study the case. The presiding judge refused. The reason? It would cause unnecessary delay. Three days against 22 lifetimes!

In the courtroom the boys were segregated in one group. Permission was requested for the boys to sit with counsel for necessary consultation during the trial. The case lasted 13 weeks. Need for consultation was great. But in his zeal the presiding judge refused. The reason? A scarcity of space!

Many concepts were on trial with those boys—the rights of minorities to equal justice in our courts — the Good Neighbor policy — the war—democracy itself. And democracy lost. Seventeen defendants were found guilty. Seventeen for one!

The day of the conviction, Radio Berlin short-waved the good news to all of Latin-America. Since then Radio Berlin has not let Latin-America forget.


Some time later a separate trial was called for the remaining two defendants. The prosecution immediately asked for a dismissal. On what grounds? Insufficient, evidence! Unbelievable, you say? But it is all a matter of record. Did the prosecution attorneys fear that the same evidence used to convict 17 could not twice stand the light of day? Did they hesitate in the presence of a judge perhaps less zealous? Were they aghast at the mischief they had so cunningly wrought? Or were they convinced that yesterday's case was now, without mass hysteria, no case at all?


A hard-headed defense attorney heard sentence pronounced, heard the weeping of mothers, fathers, sisters, and remarked, "What has just happened to those boys is a crime."

A crime against justice, against humanity, against the very principles of democracy.

A crime against the national and racial UNITY of peoples that is the very backbone of America—a UNITY which our enemies constantly and viciously attack.

A crime that strikes directly at the UNITY of our war effort.

A crime that we who love California must wipe out.


The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee was formed to aid these boys in every possible way. Persons prominent in many professions, of every political party and every religious faith have joined the committee or contributed financial and moral support.

You as an individual should write Attorney General Robert Kenny at Sacramento urging him, as one who is opposed to racial discrimination, to join in requesting the court to set aside the convictions.

Defense attorneys are appealing the case. Costs involved are considerable. The future of these boys—your own civil liberties—are at stake. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and in this instance—Cash. Your financial contribution is desperately needed for the defense fund. So is your help and encouragement. Send checks, cash, letters to—


Carey McWilliams, National Chairman
1006 Broadway Arcade Building
Los Angeles 13, California

Reprinted from the Los Angeles DAILY NEWS by the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee

Reprinted from the Los Angeles DAILY NEWS by the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee