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People & Events: Judge Charles Williams Fricke (1882-1958)

Judge Fricke...[the Sleepy Lagoon case is] the most difficult matter which has come before me during 25 years on the bench.
Judge Charles W. Fricke

Charles W. Fricke had a distinguished career in his native hometown of Milwaukee before he relocated to Los Angeles in 1917. He received a J.D., LL.M., and LL.D from New York University in 1902, and then served as a District Attorney and a municipal judge in Wisconsin.

After moving to California for health reasons, Fricke served as a prosecutor in the Los Angeles District Attorney's office. By 1927 he had worked his way up to chief deputy and earned a reputation as one of the best authorities on California criminal law. By 1942 he had published acclaimed textbooks on jurisprudence and evidence, among them Manual of Criminal Law and Procedure for Peace Officers (reprinted five times since 1925), Outlines of California Criminal Procedure (1926), California Criminal Law (1927), Criminal Investigation (reprinted three times since 1930), and The Law of Criminal Arrest, Extradition, Search and Seizure (1943). Yet Fricke reached his crowning achievement when California Governor C. C. Young appointed him to fill a vacancy on the Superior Court bench.

In 1942 a case would come before him that severely tested his capabilities in the courtroom. People v. Zammora, popularly named the "Sleepy Lagoon" murder trial, brought 22 young Mexican American defendants and seven defense lawyers into the courtroom, and generated a wealth of press attention. The trial was high-profile -- and Fricke felt pressure under the spotlight.

He was part of the elite Anglo community, as were most California judges at the time. Members of Los Angeles' white middle class had been increasingly expressing concerns about the Mexican American population and their ability to live within a civilized society. The Los Angeles press featured reports of unruly, aggressive, and wholly "foreign" Mexican American delinquents whose main crime, it seemed, was a refusal to defer to white privilege. Although America was waging a war against fascist notions of racial supremacy in Europe and Japan, it remained a steadfastly segregationist nation at home.

The trial was logistically complicated given the number of defendants, and Fricke ruled that the accused should be seated in two rows, alphabetically, opposite the jury. Their seven lawyers were to remain at the defense table. Fricke ruled that their efforts to communicate with their clients while court was in session was a disruption to the proceedings. While Fricke assured the defense they could confer with their clients during court breaks, the defense, many of whom had three clients each, found this time woefully inadequate. In effect, Fricke denied the defendants the right to counsel.

Fricke often found for the prosecution throughout the 12-week trial. The prosecution insisted on referring to the boys as a gang, and pointed to their style of dress and hair as evidence. The prosecution also instructed the bailiff and guards to prevent the boys from having their hair cut or from changing into clean clothing. As the trial wore on and the weeks of uncut hair and dirty clothing became apparent, the defense protested strenuously to the court. Fricke ruled against the defense's efforts to allow the boys to get haircuts and receive clean clothes, arguing that their appearance was crucial to understanding their character.

As the trial wore on and the judge's patience waned, Fricke increasingly ruled against defense counsel's objections even before an objection was finished. George Shibley, who came into the trial later than the other defense lawyers, was particularly targeted by the judge. Fricke saw Shibley's frequent objections on behalf of the defendants as intentional obstructions to moving the case quickly. Fricke increasingly demeaned Shibley and the defendants in front of the jury, thereby reducing their credibility and any hope for a fair trial.

In the end, the sentences were extraordinarily harsh. Only five of the defendants were acquitted. Five were found guilty of assault and sentenced to six months to one year in jail. Nine were found guilty of murder in the second degree and were given five years to life. And three were found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Zammora decision has entered legal history as the ruling that effectively ended mass trials in California. The appeals court overturned Fricke's verdicts, judging that his rulings had effectively denied representation to the accused because they were prevented from consulting with their attorneys during the trial. In California history, the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial also remains notorious for its miscarriage of justice. The guilt of the accused was never established, and Fricke's contempt of the defense lawyers and their clients was clear. While the Sleepy Lagoon defendants' records were cleared, the trial was never reopened, their innocence was never completely secured -- and José Díaz's killer was never brought to justice.

Although the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee raised enough community support to win on appeal, Fricke remained relatively unscathed for the rest of his career. He would be reelected to the bench for the next 21 years. He remained an esteemed member of the legal community and he continued to publish textbooks on criminal law that were still used in California law schools after his death in 1958.





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