The Sleepy Lagoon Murder Case

Race Discrimination and Mexican-American Rights

Mark A. Weitz

What began as a neighborhood party during the summer of 1942 led to the largest mass murder trial in California's history. After young Jose Diaz was found murdered near Los Angeles' Sleepy Lagoon reservoir, 600 Mexican Americans were rounded up by the police, 24 were indicted, and 17 were convicted. But thanks to the efforts of crusading lawyers, Hollywood celebrities, and Mexican Americans throughout the nation, all 17 convictions were thrown out in an appellate decision that cited lack of evidence, coerced testimony, deprivation of the right to counsel, and judicial misconduct.

Mark Weitz chronicles the Sleepy Lagoon case (People v. Zammora) from the streets of the L.A.'s Mexican-American neighborhoods to the criminal courts, through the appeals process, and to the ultimate release of the convicted. In the process, Weitz opens a window on the uneasy world of Hispanic-Anglo relations, which, exacerbated by an influx of Mexican immigrants, had simmered beneath the surface in California for a century and reached the boiling point by 1942. By demonstrating how an environment of hostility and fear had fostered a breakdown in the legal protections that should have been afforded to the Sleepy Lagoon defendants, Weitz also illuminates a vital episode in the evolution of defendants' rights—including the right to counsel and a fair and impartial trial.

“The book is particularly strong in its contribution to legal history, specifically how Zammora reflected on and changed the legal system. . . . Weitz is a skilled storyteller and writer and provides interesting details about his subjects—including defendants, witnesses, lawyers, and judges—and the circumstances surrounding the supposed murder, the case’s evolution, and courtroom scenes. . . . The book is significant and enjoyable contribution to our understanding of the history of the Sleepy Lagoon case, war-time Los Angeles, and, particularly, legal history.

—Pacific Historical Review

“On the whole, Weitz has provided a readable, informative, and nicely contextualized study of what has become a pivotal event in the history of ethnic Mexicans in the US.

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As the case unfolded, the prosecution and local media drew ominous comparisons between the supposed dangers posed by the Mexican-American defendants and the threat allegedly posed by thousands of Japanese Americans, whose sympathies had been called into question after Pearl Harbor. Weitz shows how Zammora demonstrates what it is like to literally be tried in the court of public opinion where the "opinion" has been shaped before the trial even begins.

Now, as Americans once again feel threatened by outsiders—whether Islamic jihadists or illegal immigrants—Zammora provides a mirror showing us how we acted then compared to how we respond now. While much of what occurred in 1942 L.A. was unique to its time and place, Weitz's compelling narrative shows that many of the social, political, and culture issues that dominated America then are still with us today.

About the Author

Mark A. Weitz is an attorney with the Weitz Morgan law firm in Austin, Texas, and a former professor of history at Gettysburg College. He is the author of several books, including Clergy Malpractice in America: Nally v. Grace Community Church of the Valley and A Higher Duty: Desertion among Georgia Troops during the American Civil War.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series