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The Sleepy Lagoon case

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Title:
The Sleepy Lagoon case
Series Title:
This week in history
Creator:
Castro, Richard T.
Place of Publication:
Denver, CO
Publisher:
Richard T. Castron
Publication Date:
Language:
English

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Auraria Library
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Auraria Library
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Copyright [name of copyright holder or Creator or Publisher as appropriate]. Permission granted to University of Colorado Denver to digitize and display this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.

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Full Text
This Week In History
The Sleepy Lagoon Case by
Richard Castro
On October 4, 1944, the Los Angeles District Court of Appeals, in a
unanimous decision, reversed the conviction of all the defendants in the Sleepy Lagoon Case, which was up to that time the largest mass trial for murder ever held in the country. The case involved twenty-four young men, all alleged to be members of the 38th Street "gang." These "baby gangsters," as the press called them, were convicted of the murder of a rival gang member in one of the most outrageous court trials in legal history.
Carey McWilliams, in his classic history of Mexican Americans, "North
from Mexico" gives the details of the case. "On the afternoon of August 1,
1942, Henry Leyvas, a young Mexican-American, had taken his girl for a drive near a little pond in a gravel pit near what was called the Williams Ranch on the east side of Los Angeles. In lieu of other recreational facilities, this abandoned gravel pit had long been used by Mexican youngsters in the
neighborhood as a swimming pool. Early that evening, a Saturday night, Leyvas and his girl had been set upon by members of a rival "gang" and a fight had occurred."
McWilliams writes that, "Later, the same evening, Leyvas returned to the gravel pit with members of his own gang, in several cars to look for the troublemakers. Some of the members of this group knew Leyvas intended "to get even," but others merely went along for the ride and a swim and a general good time. Finding the gravel pit deserted, they discovered that a party was in progress at a nearby house belonging to the Delgadillo family and
decided to 'crash the gate.' Some fighting and scuffling occurred at the
Delgadillo home and the invaders, after a time, left the scene of the party."


2
The next day, the body of Jose Diaz, was found on a dirt road near the Delgadillo home. The autopsy showed that the young man had died as a result of a fracture at the base of the neck. Diaz had left the party with two companions, who presumably were the last persons to see him alive. They were never called as witnesses and their version of what happened to Diaz is not known. It is also important to note that the autopsy surgeon testified that Diaz' injuries were similar to those found on victims of automobile accidents. Such are the facts of this case.
The Los Angeles press jumped on this story. With bare facts, they promptly developed stories that proceeded to weave a web of melodramatic mystery and fancy. The old gravel pit was dubbed the "Sleepy Lagoon" by reporters covering the story. The L.A. police quickly rounded up twenty-four youth and and charged them with murder.
While investigating the case, police severely beat up two of the boys. Anna Zacsek, an attorney for a third young man, testified that she walked into a room where her client was being questioned. She said he was handcuffed and was being beaten by police, and that she found him barely conscious, smeared with his own blood. Held incommunicado while they were being "worked over" by the police, the defendants were then marched, en masse, to the Grand Jury which proceeded to indict all of them for first degree murder.
McWilliams reports that, "When they appeared before the Grand Jury they were dirty, (not having been allowed to clean up), bruised,- a thoroughly disreputable appearing group of youngsters - completely terrified by the treatment they just received."
From the very outset, a "gang" was on trial. For years, Mexicans had been pushed around by the Los Angeles police and given a very rough time in the courts, but the Sleepy Lagoon prosecution brought the issue to a head.


3
The trial took place before a biased and prejudiced judge (found to be such be an appallate court). It was conducted by a prosecutor who pointed to the clothes and the style of haricut of the defendants as evidence of guilt; and was staged in an atmosphere of intense community-wide prejudice which had been whipped up and artfully sustained by the entire press of Los Angeles.
From the beginning the proceedings were handled more like a ceremonial lynching than a court trial. The defendants were not allowed to sit with their counsel. There were seven defense attorneys and were only permitted to communicate with them during recesses and after adjournment. For the first weeks of the trial, the defendants were not permitted to get haircuts and packages of clean clothes were intercepted by the jailer on orders of the prosecutor. As a consequence of this prejudicial order, the defendants came into the courtroom every day looking like bums. Following a trial that lasted several months and filled six thousand pages of transcript, they were convicted on January 13, 1943: nine were convicted of second-degree murder, plus two counts of assault, and were sentenced to San Quentin Prison. Others were convicted of lesser offenses; and five were convicted of assault and sentenced to the county jail.
Following the conviction, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee was formed which raised a large fund to provide new counsel and to appeal the case. On October 4, 1944, the District Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision, reversed the conviction of all the defendants and the case was later dismissed "for lack of evidence."
On October 24, 1944, the District Court of Appeals reversed all charges, after the defendants had served 2 years at San Quentin. Flundreds of Mexican-Americans awaited the boys outside the Hall of Juctice. For the first time in the history of Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans had won an organized


4
victory in the courts. They held their head high that day in the belief that America was indeed beginning to be a country with Liberty and Justice for All.
★ ★ ★
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Full Text

PAGE 1

• • This Week In History The Sleepy Lagoon Case by Richard Castro On October 4, 1944, the Los Angeles District Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision, reversed the conviction of all the defendants in the Sleepy Lagoon Case, which was up to that time the largest mass trial for murder ever held in the country. The case involved twenty-four young men, all alleged to be members of the 38th Street 11gang.11 These 11baby gangsters,11 as the press called them, were convicted of the murder of a rival gang member in one of the most outrageous court trials in legal history. Carey McWilliams, in his classic history of Mexican Americans, 11North from Mexico11 gives the details of the case. 110n the afternoon of August 1, 1942, Henry Leyvas, a young Me xi can-American, had taken his girl for a drive near a little pond in a gravel pit near what was called the Williams Ranch on the east side of Los Angeles. In lieu of other recreational facilities, this abandoned gravel pit had long been used by Mexican youngsters in the neighborhood as a swimming pool. Early that evening, a Saturday night, Leyvas and his girl had been set upon by members of a rival 11gang11 and a fight had occurred.11 McWilliams writes that, 11Later, the same evening, Leyvas returned to the gravel pit with members of his own gang, in several cars to look for the troublemakers. Some of the members of this group knew Leyvas intended 11to get even, 11 but others merely went a 1 ong for the ride and a swim and a genera 1 good time. Finding the gravel pit deserted, they discovered that a party was in progress at a nearby house belonging to the Delgadillo family and decided to 1Crash the gate.1 Some fighting and scuffling occurred at the Delgadillo home and the invaders, after a time, left the scene of the party.11

PAGE 2

• • 2 " The next day, the body of Jose D1 az, was found on a dirt road near the Delgadillo home. The autopsy showed that the young man had died as a result of a fracture at the base of the neck. had left the party with two companions, who presumably were the last persons to see him alive. They were II' never called as witnesses and their version of what happened to Diaz is not known. It is also important to note that the autopsy surgeon testified that / D1az1 injuries were similar to those found on victims of automobile accidents. Such are the facts of this case. The Los Angeles press jumped on this story. With bare facts, they promptly developed stories that proceeded to weave a web of melodramatic mystery and fancy. The o 1 d grave 1 pit was dubbed the 11 S 1 eepy Lagoon 11 by reporters covering the story. The L.A. police quickly rounded up twenty-four youth and and charged them with murder . While investigating the case, police severely beat up two of the boys. Anna Zacsek, an attorney for a third young man, testified that she walked into a room where her client was being questioned. She said he was handcuffed and was being beaten by police, and that she found him barely conscious, smeared with his own blood. Held incommunicado while they were being 11Worked over11 by the po 1 ice, the defendants were then rna rched, en masse, to the Grand Jury which proceeded to indict all of them for first degree murder. McWilliams reports that, 11When they appeared before the Grand Jury they were dirty, (not having been allowed to clean up), bruised,-a thoroughly disreputable appearing group of youngsters completely terrified by the treatment they just received. 11 From the very outset, a 11gang11 was on trial. For years, Mexicans had been pushed around by the Los Angeles police and given a very rough time in the courts, but the Sleepy Lagoon prosecution brought the issue to a head.

PAGE 3

• • 3 The trial took place before a biased and prejudiced judge (found to be such be an appall ate court). It was conducted by a prosecutor who pointed to the clothes and the style of haricut of the defendants as evidence of guilt; and was staged in an atmosphere of intense community-wide prejudice which had been whipped up and artfully sustained by the entire press of Los Angeles. From the beginning the proceedings were handled more like a ceremonial lynching than a court trial. The defendants were not allowed to sit with their counsel. There were seven defense attorneys and were only permitted to communicate with them during recesses and after adjournment. For the first weeks of the tria 1, the defendants were not permitted to get haircuts and packages of clean clothes were intercepted by the jailer on orders of the prosecutor. As a consequence of this prejudicial order, the defendants came into the courtroom every day looking like bums. Following a trial that lasted several months and filled six thousand pages of transcript, they were convicted on January 13, 1943: nine were convicted of second-degree murder, plus two counts of assault, and were sentenced to San Quentin Prison. Others were convicted of lesser offenses; and five were convicted of assault and sentenced to the county jail. Following the con vi cti on, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee was formed which raised a large fund to provide new counsel and to appeal the case. On October 4, 1944, the District Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision, reversed the conviction of all the defendants and the case was later dismissed 11for lack of evidence.11 On October 24, 1944, the District Court of Appeals reversed all charges, after the defendants had served 2 years at San Quentin. Hundreds of Mexican-Americans awaited the boys outside the Hall of Juctice. For the first time in the history of Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans had won an organized

PAGE 4

4 4lt victory in the courts. They held their head high that day in the belief that America was indeed beginning to be a country with Liberty and Justice for All. * * * 4lt I