Attorneys demand release of 'Sleepy Lagoon' youths
Attorneys for youths still serving time in the "Sleepy Lagoon" case today worked for their "immediate and unconditional release" on the strength of a reversal by appellate court of the 12 murder convictions.
The opinion, written by Justice Thomas P. White and concurred in by Presiding Justice John M. York and Justice William C. Doran, not only found evidence for conviction "woefully lacking," but also criticized the entire conduct of the 13 week trial.
The "Sleepy Lagoon" case, now considered an important chapter in American legal history, began the night of Aug. 1, 1942, when 22-year-old Jose Diaz assertedly was murdered during a fight at a picnic at the Williams ranch in the Montebello area, near Atlantic blvd. and Slauson ave.
It was estimated that between 600 and 700 boys and girls, most of them teen-agers and of Mexican extraction, were arrested in the course of investigation into the death.
Twenty-four youths, some under 18 years of age and only a few over 22 years old, were finally indicted by the grand jury for the murder.
Two of the youths asked to be tried separately. Their trial was delayed until after that of the remaining 22, who were tried en masse and convicted.
At conclusion of the major trial, charges against the two youths were dismissed on motion of the district attorney's office on grounds of insufficient evidence.
The trial was undertaken during the tenure of the late Dist. Atty. John Dockweiler, and the two deputies who brought the charges were the then Asst. Dist. Atty. Clyde Shoemaker, now a private attorney, and Dep. Dist. Atty. John Barnes.
Barnes, with Dep. Atty. Gen. Eugene M. Elson, argued the case for the respondent (the state) before the district appellate court.
The case of the 22 youths went to trial before Superior Judge Charles W. Fricke's court Oct. 16, 1942.
Of the conduct of the trial, Justice White's opinion yesterday stated: "Constant bickering and quarreling with counsel by the court was not conducive to the creation of judicial atmosphere... defense counsel was held up to the jury as one who would resort to unethical, even iniquitous, practices.
"Imputations on good faith of counsel made in the presence of the jury can unjustly injure the cause of a defendant and thereby deprive him of that fair and impartial trial to which everyone is entitled."
Judge Fricke's "castigation of defense counsel" was criticized by the opinion, as well as other practices during the trial.
"The difficulties presented by the limited courtroom space," the opinion held, "is the result of failure of the court to act in this regard. Under such circumstances it is not the constitution or the rights guaranteed by it that must yield.
"That a joint trial of numerous defendants speeds the wheels of justice furnished no valid argument for depriving a defendant charged with crime of his right to effective [illegible data]
omitted . . . it would have been better judicial practice not to indulge in such comments, for jurors place great reliance in what a trial judge says and does.
"However impatient a trial judge may be with the defense he should be careful not to make remarks or comments that will prejudice the defendants."
When the trial was concluded, three youths were convicted of first degree murder and of two counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder. They were Henry Leyvas, Joe Ruiz, Robert Telles.
Nine were convicted of second degree murder and of two counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder.
They were Gus Zammora, Henry Ynostroza, Ysmael Parra, Victor Robert Thompson, Manuel Reyes, John Melendez, Manuel Delgado, John Y. Matuz and Angel Padillo.
Of this latter group, Delgado, Reyes, Matuz and Ynostroza have been released on parole. The five others, now at Chino prison, were to have been paroled by the end of the year.
Five youths who were convicted of misdemeanors have already served their sentences. Three of these — Victor Segobia, Eugene Carpio and Joseph Valenzuela—were convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. The other two—Andrew Acosta and Bennie Alvarez—were convicted of simple assault.
Five youths were acquitted of all charges. They were Joe Carpio (brother of Eugene), Richard Gastelum, Edward Grandpre, Ruben Penia and Daniel Verdugo.
After the convictions the Sleepy Lagoon defense committee was formed, headed by Carey McWilliams, attorney and author. It included many celebrities and civic leaders and won support for the defense in other parts of the nation.
Of the murder convictions Justice White's opinion said:
"Tangible and substantial evidence is woefully lacking to identify any of these appellants (except one) as having committed an assault with any deadly weapons . . . and the record is devoid of any evidence showing that any of them committed any assault on the decedent."
The opinion concluded: "To hold under the circumstances here present that the defendants were accorded their constitutional rights to 'appear in defense in person and with counsel' would simply be to ignore actualities."
The claim by defendants counsel that the prosecution was the result of racial prejudice was held by the appellate court to be without foundation.
Counsel for the defendants included the firm of Charles Katz, Leo Gallagher and Ben Margolis, and George E. Shipley and Selma Mikels Bachelis.
In the absence of Dist. Atty. Fred N. Howser no statement could be obtained as to the next move in the case. The alternatives are that the district attorney and attorney general will ask the appellate court for a rehearing, or ask the state supreme court for a hearing on the opinion, or move for dismissal of the case.