People & Events: George E. Shibley (1910-1989)
Everyone knew the case would last for months, and it sounded like a loser, but it interested me.
George Shibley led an extraordinary career as a criminal defense attorney. "He took cases that no one else would," said his wife, Eleanor. Frequently, his clients were homosexuals, minorities, and radicals. In his 56-year career, none of his clients ever received the death penalty. He was known in the legal community as a fighter for the underdog, sometimes providing his services only on the promise of payment. It was therefore a lucky moment for the Sleepy Lagoon defendants when in 1942 LaRue McCormick, a labor organizer and member of the Communist Party, asked Shibley to replace one of the seven lawyers in the highly controversial case of People v. Zammora. The case would test Shibley's abilities as a defense lawyer and win him notoriety. He said of the experience, "it made the forces of law and order hate me." Yet the price was worth it when he eventually secured justice for the seventeen boys on trial.
Shibley was born in New York City, the son of Syrian immigrants, on May 6, 1910. He spent most of his young life in Long Beach, California, where he attended the Polytechnic High School. He went on to Stanford University and Stanford Law, graduating in 1934. By 1935, he had set up his own law practice in Long Beach, where he remained for the rest of his life.
When the largest mass trial in California history began in 1942, involving 22 Mexican American young men indicted for the murder of one, the odds seemed in favor of the prosecution. For Shibley, who had suffered from racism because of his Arab ancestry, People v. Zammora had special resonance. The defendants, who had only seven lawyers among them, were clearly being denied a fair trial from the start. When Shibley joined the defense, he quickly provoked the ire of the presiding judge, Charles Fricke. Shibley frequently raised objections to Fricke's procedures in the courtroom, which included seating the boys away from their lawyers, not allowing them to clean up or change clothes, and repeatedly demeaning the defense team and their clients in front of the jury. Shibley told the jury, "it's always been open season for the police on Mexicans," fully realizing the odds that were against his clients. Nevertheless, he tenaciously continued to object throughout the trial, in order to document the severe shortage of evidence -- and the unjust procedures of Judge Fricke's courtroom. Shibley was not looking to win the case. He knew the boys stood a better chance with a later appeal.
He was right. On January 12, 1943, the jury handed down its convictions. Seventeen of the twenty-two boys were found guilty. Three of them were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of José Díaz. LaRue McCormick and other left-wing activists concerned about the boys' case quickly formed the Citizens' Committee for the Defense of Mexican American Youth (later reorganized as the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee) to raise money for an appeal. Shibley had planned well for this moment, but much to his surprise, he was drafted into the military immediately following the trial. Attorney Ben Margolis Jr. argued the appeal, aided in large part by the avalanche of objections Shibley had put on record during the trial. The boys were released in October of 1944 after the Second District Court of Appeals overturned the case. Presiding Judge Clement Nye ruled there was insufficient evidence for a conviction, and that the boys had not received a fair trial.
In later years, Shibley gave an interview to the Long Beach Press-Telegram that highlighted the significance of People v. Zammora in court history:
Its effect on constitutional law was felt throughout the United States. ...This has got to be one of the most outstanding cases of open police brutality ever recorded in this country. As a result of this case, the court held that a defendant had a right to participate in his own defense. ... In an action called the Zammora Decision the court said that if the courtroom was not big enough to enable defendants to sit with their attorneys, then some place must be found that is big enough. In short, it has made it almost impossible to hold mass trials.
For years after the Sleepy Lagoon incident, Shibley maintained close friendships with many of his former clients. Of the seven lawyers involved in the defense, he was the only one whom the defendants had trusted. For the rest of his life, he tenderly referred to them as "the boys." When he died after heart surgery on July 4, 1989, they came to mourn with his family at the funeral.
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