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.
Late at night on August 1, 1942, eight to ten uninvited young men were ordered to leave a birthday party at the east Los Angeles ranch home of the Delgadillo family. The party crashers ended up half a mile away on a “lover’s lane,” where they assaulted several young people parked by a reservoir nicknamed “Sleepy Lagoon.” The victims of the beating returned to their own neighborhood, collected a large group of friends, and returned to confront their attackers. Finding no one there, they followed the sound of music to the nearby Delgadillo party. What happened when they arrived would never be clear, but a brawl erupted inside and around the Delgadillo house.
Police arrived to find two stabbing victims. They also discovered 22-year-old Jose Diaz dying nearby on the roadside. Authorities blamed Diaz’s death and the fight at the Delgadillo house on a perceived “Mexican youth gang” problem in Los Angeles. Intending to extinguish gang-related crime, police used Diaz’s death as a pretext to arrest hundreds of young Mexicans and Mexican-Americans for offenses ranging from weapons possession to minor charges like vagrancy, curfew violation, “unlawful assemblage,” or possessing a draft card with an incorrect address.
By the end of the week, between 300 and 600 people had been detained in nightly police sweeps. Police singled out young “zoot suiters,” who wore extravagant wide trousers, drape jackets, and flamboyant hats.
Twenty-two of the detainees were charged with murder and assault, while two others were indicted as juvenile offenders. They became known as the “Sleepy Lagoon defendants.” Prosecutors accused them of being members of a teenaged “gang,” which had conspired to crash the Delgadillo party in search of the group that had attacked them earlier. Since Jose Diaz was allegedly killed during a fight resulting from this conspiracy, the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were held collectively responsible for Diaz’s murder.
American participation in World War II played a major role in how the case was viewed. Conservative dailies like the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Examiner railed against “zoot suit hoodlums,” but skeptics derided the trial. The California Eagle, Los Angeles’ African-American weekly, accused the conservative press of manufacturing fake “crime waves” perpetrated by minority young people in order to perpetuate segregation. Each side accused the other of aiding Nazi attempts to sow discord in the United States during wartime. Worried over reports that the Axis powers were using the trial to encourage a fascist “fifth column” in his country, Mexico’s consul accused the prosecution and the conservative Los Angeles press of being motivated by racism.