Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial

Eduardo Obregón Pagán

in Latino Studies

ISBN: 9780199913701
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial

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  • History of the Americas
  • US Cultural History


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In early August 1942 a fight broke out at a birthday celebration in rural Los Angeles County. In the aftermath, twenty-two-year-old José Díaz, a guest at the party, was found mortally wounded near a reservoir popularly known as “the sleepy lagoon.” In response to his death, and to ongoing public fear that the wartime law enforcement agencies were inadequately staffed, the governor’s office urged Los Angeles law enforcement agencies to crack down on juvenile delinquency. The police and sheriff’s office coordinated a massive dragnet, arresting hundreds of young people, and eventually charged twenty-two young men with Díaz’s murder. The trial People v. Zammora, dubbed the “Sleepy Lagoon murder trial” by the press, was held from October 1942 to January 1943. The prosecution based part of its case on the “distinctive appearance” of the accused, arguing that their love of jazz fashion was evidence of their social deviancy. Despite the lack of evidence or eyewitnesses, seventeen of the accused were given sentences that ranged from life in prison to a year in the county jail. Five were found innocent. A diverse group of community activists were convinced that the trial was improperly conducted and drew on Hollywood celebrities such as Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, and Anthony Quinn to raise money for a retrial. All the charges against the defendants were dropped two years later on appeal. The death of José Díaz remains officially unsolved.

Article.  3096 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; US Cultural History

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