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Sleepy Lagoon Trials: 1942-43

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."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Sleepy Lagoon Trials: 1942-43 - Zoot Suit Riots, "tangible And Substantial Evidence Is Woefully Lacking", Suggestions For Further Reading