Sleepy Lagoon . . .


WEDNESDAY, October 4th, 1944, news spread through downtown Los Angeles that Justice Thomas P. White, of the Second District Court of Appeal after many months of study and work, had finally filed his decision on the Sleepy Lagoon case, with the concurrence of Presiding Justice, John M. York and Justice William C. Doran.

No greater vindication of two and a half years of hard work could have been expected.

Of the 66 charges against the 22 defendents, for only ONE charge did Justice White deem the evidence "INSUFFICIENT" . . .


Justice White's decision bristles with such expressions as the following, taken verbatim from the record:

"there is no evidence . . ."

"complete lack of evidence . . ."

"absence of any evidence . . ."

"not established by the evidence..."

"belies the record . . ."

"nowhere in the evidence are we able to discern any testimony connecting this defendant with any assault . . ."

"this evidence which fails to show . . ."

"neither is there any testimony . . ."

"total lack of any evidence to show that the appellants murdered Diaz . . ."

"evidence woefully lacking . . ."

Such is the appellate court's verdict on the unholy fandango that agitated press and public of Los Angeles for months. Such are his comments on the case that had our Los Angeles County police arresting at random hundreds of Mexican boys, beating them up by the dozen, and lecturing

the Grand Jury with the fascist pseudo-science of "criminal races."

On such "woefully lacking" evidence, boys were sent to prison for life. On such "complete lack of evidence" Clem Peoples, Chief Criminal Investigator of the Sheriff's office wrote his lurid article for a pulp magazine about youthful gangsters. And our Hearst and Chandler press outdid themselves in yellow journalism.

Such is the evidence that kept Judge Fricke's court grinding on day after day for thirteen weeks. Such is the basis for a conviction that led the prosecution to boast of having secured the greatest mass conviction in the history of California for a single murder!!!

On October 23 the case was brought up in the Superior Court of Los Angeles and, on the motion of the Deputy District Attorney, Judge Clement D. Nye dismissed all charges. The same day the boys were released and the Hall of Justice was the scene of an hour-long demonstration as parents and friends greeted them with embraces and tears. Free! After more than two long years in prison.

Two statements made by Justice White in the last two pages of his decision must be examined with great care. On page 120 he says:

"In appellants' briefs filed herein, we note the charge that the prosecution of these defendants is the result of racial prejudice. This claim is without foundation and finds no support in the record."

On page 121 Justice White says again: "There is no ground revealed by the record upon which it can be said that this prosecution was conceived, born, or nurtured by the seeds of racial prejudice."

The Hearst and Chandler press were much heartened by these statements, which would seem to cut the ground out from beneath the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee which made its appeal upon the basis that the boys were being tried by prejudice rather than by jurisprudence. In the SLEEPY LAGOON MYSTERY I made the repeated claim that racism was at the bottom of the conviction of the Sleepy Lagoon boys.

Have we been hoaxing the public? Was there no racial prejudice in this case? In all fairness to our many supporters this matter must be closely scrutinized.

Let me sum up the history rapidly: it began with a press campaign publicizing juvenile delinquency and emphasizing especially Negro and Mexican cases. The police, always feuding against the Mexican boys, arrested them in droves and beat them up by the dozen.

Before the Grand Jury appears an official of the county and reads a paper in which he charges that crime has a racial basis and that Mexicans, Negroes, Malays are especially tainted with the instinct to commit crime. Like Hitler, this official charges that only the Nordic race is free from this criminal instinct.

During and after the trial the press keeps up its campaign which culminates in riots between American soldiers and sailors and Mexican and Negro boys. Many are injured for life. Time Magazine's comment was: "The press, with the exception of the Daily News and the Hollywood Citizen-News, helped whip up the mob spirit. And Los Angeles, apparently unaware that it was spawning the ugliest brand of mob action since the coolie race riots of the 1870's, gave its tacit approval."

Now what was happening in the world while this was going on in Los Angeles? World War II was being fought, the costliest and deadliest war

of history, at the bottom of which lay the cancer of racist discrimination, the myth of Nordic supremacy. The United States had only recently been drawn into this struggle and it had proclaimed that it was fighting against Hitlerism, that it was fighting for the rights of all peoples, all minorities, all races and creeds. The United States had unified our continent against Hitlerism by inaugurating the Good Neighbor policy.

The Sleepy Lagoon Case came up as if by magic to give the Axis powers the right to say: "Your proclamations are eye-wash! Behind your sham of democracy, behind the facade of your Good Neighbor Policy, lies your old dollar diplomacy! And the short wave radio from the Axis beamed this propaganda to Latin America.

It was a dangerous moment in our war. Our armies were not yet ready, our navy was still badly shattered from the Pearl Harbor raid, Russia was at bay at Stalingrad, England faltered before the German rush to the Suez canal. And the submarine sinkings in the Atlantic were at their height!

At such a moment, if the Axis powers had been able to make trouble for the United States by racial warfare within our country, if they had been able to swing the Latin-American countries to their side, the war might have been lost.

And in this campaign to create trouble for us at home, the Sleepy Lagoon Case came most opportunely—for Berlin and Tokyo.

At such a moment, with the eyes of the entire world upon a courtroom in Los Angeles, you'd imagine the judge there, Judge Fricke, would give an example of jurisprudence that would go ringing down into history. Well, yes, it will go ringing down into history but not for jurisprudence.

Justice White finds, and I quote from page 69 of his decision: "We are satisfied that the trial judge (Judge Fricke) injured materially the defense of the appellants by the character of the rebukes he administered in the presence of the jury when, in most instances, not even a mild rebuke was deserved."

"Injured materially!" Bear that in mind.

And on page 70 Justice White says: "The transcript also reveals numerous occasions when the judge (Judge Fricke) made comments that might well have been omitted."

"Might well have been omitted!" Bear that too in mind, please!

Elsewhere Justice White finds that Judge Fricke erred in permitting the prosecution to place before the jury a mass of inadmissable evidence. Says Justice White (page 75): "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."

"Belie human nature and challenge human experience!" Bear that in mind likewise.

Justice White has also something to say of the struggle made by the defense counsel and especially Mr. Shibley to keep in constant touch with their clients, a struggle that Judge Fricke charged as "serious misconduct" on the part of the defense. Justice White finds, first of all, that this is a right that belongs to every person tried in an American court, and is so guaranteed not only by our Federal Constitution but also by our State Constitution.

Set aside both State and Federal Constitutions, Judge Fricke does! Also to be borne in mind!

Justice White says further, (page 68): "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 (Judge Fricke) was as undeserved as it was unwarranted."

"Undeserved and unwarranted" castigations! Please remember!

Regarding Judge Fricke's excuse that the courtroom was so small and the number of boys being tried so large that there would be confusion if counsel were in constant touch with client, Justice White says: "It is the court's (Judge Fricke's) duty to provide adequate quarters and facilities, which the court has the power to do without limitation."

Judge Fricke failed in his duty! Don't forget!

Here then is a case that is being followed by millions of people all over the United States, all over the world. Our American democracy is being tested, our vaunted Atlantic Charter for the peoples of the world is being tried. And at such a moment Judge Fricke goes on a rampage in which he

"materially injures the defense of the appellants . . ."

makes statements that "might have been omitted . . ."

"belies human nature and challenges human experience . . ."

"fails in his duty . . ."

makes "undeserved and unwarranted castigations of the defense . . ."

sets aside State and Federal Constitutions!

One must ask oneself then: did Judge Fricke so demean himself out of ignorance? No, he has been on the bench too long for that excuse. Did he want to give aid and comfort to the enemy (as he certainly did)? No, he is not a traitor, though he certainly gave the Axis a victory. Did he do it out of sheer caprice? No, for his errors in legal procedure fell always to one side, the side arrayed against the Mexican boys. Remains the motive of racial prejudice.


It should be noted that Justice White is twice careful to say that he finds no record of racial prejudice "in the record". And that is quite right: the racial prejudice was not in the record, but it was in the Grand Jury, it was in the Los Angeles press, it was in the actions of our police.

When, way back in 1942, Mrs. LaRue McCormick called the first meeting to discuss the Sleepy Lagoon Case, there was only a handful of alert people who responded.

But the case soon swelled into the broadest kind of democratic movement. Unions, large and small collected dimes and dollars in their shops, Motion picture people contributed their talents and their money. Los Angeles business men sent in their checks. The newsboys at one of their union meetings voted to push the sales of the SLEEPY LAGOON MYSTERY. Lawyers gave generously of their time and their experience. Good wives baked cakes and made sandwiches for pay-parties to help the boys. Girls gave up their afternoons to address envelopes. From all over the country came letters of inquiry and approval. Wires of encouragement came from high officials in Latin America, and in particular from ex-President Lazaro Cardenas of Mexico.

All these people rejoice now in a victory for American democracy and for American love of justice. Ours is a victory as important as those now being won by our arms abroad. We too won and fought a battle for the preservation of the United States, with its government "of the people, by the people, for the people."

Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, 129 W. 2nd Street, Room 302 Los Angeles 12, Calif.
Additional copies free upon request. Carey McWilliams, National Chairman