After the murder of José Díaz in 1942, a grand jury was convened to decide if formal charges should be brought against the twenty-two Mexican-Americans accused of his death, who later became known as the 38th Street Boys. The grand jury eventually voted to bring the boys to court. The jury did not press charges on the girls who were involved in the fight, because the jury believed they could be swayed to testify against the boys. All of the girls refused, so they were sent without trial to a state reformatory for girls. It was operated like a military camp and infamous for its harshness and cruelty. Stories that girls swallowed pins to avoid being sent there added to its reputation.
In October of 1942, the Sleepy Lagoon Trial began. The prosecution hired two district attorneys, while the defense consisted of many different lawyers who were either public defenders or hired by the defendants’ families. Most notable among these are Richard F. Bird and Anna Zacsek. The trial did not go well for the defense in the beginning. Many of the defense lawyers were inexperienced and only focused on protecting their own clients, not the group as a whole. This led to the lawyers fighting each other and arguing. In the middle of the trial, George Shibley, a well-known defense attorney, was persuaded to take the case. He only represented six people, but he organized a defense for all of the 38th Street Boys. There was just one big obstacle in the way: the judge of the Sleepy Lagoon Trial, Charles William Fricke, nicknamed San Quentin Fricke because he had sentenced more people to San Quentin State Prison than any other judge.
The judge of the Sleepy Lagoon Trial, Charles Fricke, was biased in many ways. There was no evidence that any of the 38th Street Boys had killed José Díaz, but Charles Fricke didn’t care. Fricke believed that the boys were guilty from the beginning and wanted to make the jury believe that they were a gang. He didn’t allow the boys to change their clothes or cut their hair to make it seem as if the boys belonged in jail. It made them look like kids who were undisciplined, kids who lived on the streets and mugged people. Fricke wanted the 38th Street Boys in jail, and he fought with Shibley, the boys’ main defender. When Shibley attempted to object to Fricke’s rulings, Fricke overruled Shibley’s arguments without a second thought.
During the Sleepy Lagoon Trial, there were many blatantly racist accusations that were overlooked at the time. One of the most extreme was Lieutenant Edward Duran Ayres’ testimony to the jury. In his opinion, “Mexican-American youths had an Aztec-like disregard for human life.” The Aztec civilization was well-known at the time for the human sacrifices they performed on prisoners. Conversely, during the second hearing, the court heard from Mexican-American and African-American activists as well. They argued that “the problem of youth crime in Los Angeles could be solved by tearing down the discriminatory walls…young Mexican-Americans felt that street gangs gave them a sense of pride and belonging that could not be found in a white-dominated society that looked down on their cultural and racial heritage.” After the testimonies, the jury decided that the 38th Street Boys were guilty, and Fricke sentenced them to prison. Three of them, including Hank Leyvas, were sentenced for life, and nine defendants were sentenced to five years in prison.