On a Case-by-Case Basis: Ethnicity and Los Angeles Courts, 1850-1875

Article excerpt

In his important study A History of American Law, Lawrence Friedman commented that by 1850, in addition to American emigrants, "what traveled west, more important than form, was the general legal culture, the general ways of thinking about law .... The notion was: organize or die; and it was the theme of American law, East and West, in the last half of the nineteenth century, in every area and arena of life." (1) Friedman also pointed out that, in late antebellum America, "[a]t best, criminal justice trembled on the brink of professionalism," although he was referring specifically to large Eastern metropolises such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. (2)

At the time of its incorporation under the American legal system in 1850, Los Angeles was in contrast a small, rural, frontier town, a world away from the major cities of the East Coast. It was also a community perched on the precipice of Friedman's "organize or die" concept and, for the most part, seemed far removed from the "brink of professionalism." Emerging after the Mexican-American War and transformed by the Gold Rush beef trade in southern California cattle, which was itself supplanted by agriculture in the post-Civil War period, Los Angeles's "general legal culture" was also in transition and flux as the town was often beset by violent conflict. (3)

That conflict was often tinged with racial and ethnic antipathy that involved Americans and Europeans, Californios and Mexicans, Indians, and, less frequently, but sometimes more demonstrably and dramatically, Chinese and African Americans. Much has been written about tensions between these groups, to the extent that the dominant theme in the social history of Los Angeles in the latter half of the nineteenth century has revolved around racial and ethnic conflict.

What has been lacking, however, is a substantive analysis of how race and ethnicity intersected in the criminal justice system. This is not to say that these matters have not been interpreted, but, in the most important books about race issues in early Los Angeles, these discussions tend to be based on anecdotal, rather than systemic, evidence and generalize about the entirety of the criminal justice system on that basis. For example, Leonard Pitt, in his landmark 1966 book The Decline of the Californios, devoted a chapter to what he called "Race War in Los Angeles, 1850-1856," in which he argued that "the problem of crime and punishment--divided them [the Yankees, as he referred to Americans and Europeans, and the Californios] with razorlike sharpness." (4) Yet, although he cites prominent and dramatic anecdotes copiously from newspapers, memoirs, and the like, there is hardly any mention of how "crime and punishment" devolved from actual court operations. Likewise, Albert Camarillo's Chicanos in a Changing Society identified "dramatic court trials" as party to a race war atmosphere yet cited no specific examples." (5) Richard Griswold del Castillo's The Los Angeles Barrio cites the existence of "kangaroo trials" and distorted and biased translations at trial, but does not reference any instances of these. Griswold del Castillo does use data on disproportionate jury composition (a finding independently verified for this study by examining jury pools in Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors minute books, revealing that 15 percent of jurors called from late 1855 to early 1862 had Spanish-language surnames, while only 4 percent of jurors from 1870-73 did) to opine that justice was impossible for Latinos. (6) The problem, though, is that it is trial outcome, not jury composition, that is at issue and Griswold del Castillo did not analyze case records for his study. (7) Douglas Monroy, in Thrown Among Strangers, described Californios as a "criminalized population," suggesting, without tangible references, that they had no recourse to justice in the courts. (8) Most recently, William Deverell's opening chapter in Whitewashed Adobe, his broad study of race and ethnicity issues in Los Angeles, analyzes a few prominent 1850s incidents that had important trial elements, but these are absent because Deverell relied heavily on the memoirs and diaries of such local residents as Horace Bell and William Wallace. …