Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Juan Corona: Rush to Judgment?

The Weight of the Case

CA Map with Yuba City
CA Map with Yuba City

One witness, Byron Shannon, had said that he'd seen Corona pick up several of the victims in his truck, so he offered key testimony for the prosecution. However, his credibility came under attack, and in the end, he was so confused that he himself seemed uncertain as to what he had actually seen.

Following him came several forensic experts. The machete was a key piece of evidence, even though no blood had been found on it and it did not fit the wounds of the first victim discovered. The prosecution's expert described the kinds of cuts that such a weapon could leave on a surface, and he said that other victims who had been too decomposed for wound analysis nevertheless could not be ruled out as having been cut by such a blade. In a way, he left it open for the defense to prove otherwise, which was not Hawk's job, so Hawk turned the tables back around. He had only to prove reasonable doubt, he later told reporters.

A ballistics expert said that the bullet removed from the only victim who had been shot, William Kamp, while not traceable to Corona's gun, was the right caliber and make for being fired from Corona's pistol. Nevertheless, the blood found on its barrel did not match Kamp's blood type. Teja merely said that it could have been used to bludgeon one of the other victims. Hawk pointed out that no blood analysis proved that.

Deputies remove body bag
Deputies remove body bag

A pathologist testified that the knives found in Corona's office could have made the chest wounds on some of the victims, but he was unable to say with any certainty that they had. Hawk pounded this home to the jury.

Stains found on clothing in Corona's possession and in his vehicles had proven to be blood, but there was not much of it, so Hawk insisted that had he been the killer, there should have been much more than one might find in the ordinary person's home from common accidents. Bloodstains proved nothing, especially since not one had been definitely linked to any of the victims.

Another blood expert, Dr. Ruth Guy, said that bloodstains from Corona's van had indicated at least three types, so even if a witness was produced who would say he had been injured and transported in the van (and none was so produced, despite Hawk's promises), it would not negate the possibility that the van had transported murder victims. The same could be said about blood types found on the knives and in Corona's car. Yet there were problems with this witness. She had originally said that the saliva test on the cigarette found in one grave did not match the victim or Corona, and then she had changed her analysis to say that it did indeed match Corona, because the original saliva test from Corona had been in error. That admission gave Hawk some ground for attack — especially when a prosecution criminalist denounced Dr. Guy's technique.

Orchard, dogs find another grave
Orchard, dogs find another grave

Teja had also found some handwriting experts to indicate that samples of Corona's writing were consistent with some of the letters found in some of the names written into the ledger. Yet his analysis was still not overwhelming.

A third prosecutor, Ronald Fahey, entered the case in November. He had plenty of trial experience and he used it to go after Hawk, with both attorneys seeking any excuse to undermine the other. While it evened the playing ground somewhat, the judge often had to break up their petty squabbles. In short, the case got cluttered and unwieldy, but neither side had a clear advantage, according to those authors who were keeping track, so these attorneys were reduced to personal attacks and to promoting themselves among the press corps.

After 113 witnesses and months of testimony, the prosecution rested its case. Then Hawk got up and shocked the court. First he asked for a directed verdict that would essentially dismiss the case. He wanted an acquittal, based on the fact that there was no evidence to support the charges. When he did not get what he'd requested, he told the judge that he, too, rested his case. He had no witnesses to call, despite promising in his opening statement to name the true murderer. He apparently believed that the prosecution had done a sufficient amount of bungling that there was no need to do anything but allow the jury to condemn them for it. Kidder suggests that he felt over-confident about reasonable doubt because the press had often been on his side and because one witness who had been dismissed had told him that most of the others were not impressed with the evidence. In any event, it was a bold move.

"Looking back at Hawk's opening statement," writes Kidder, "it seems to some extent that he tailored his strategy to his ambitions rather than the circumstances."

Both sides summarized their cases in closing arguments, and Cartel indicates that Hawk's took only seven minutes, but Kidder says it went over the course of two days, with a lot of side excursions about the law. Essentially, Richard Hawk offered an alternate suspect, but did not address the fact that no one had been able to place Natividad in the area during the time in which the murders had occurred. He had been in Mexico, says Frasier, and Kidder, who went to Guadalajara to meet Natividad, concurs. He could not prove it, but he believed that Natividad had been nowhere near Yuba City during the time of the murders. He had fled the U.S. after the case against him was settled, selling everything and buying a one-way ticket home. Since then, he'd been ill. Kidder also comments that Hawk's final words, while entertaining, was not the best argument that he personally had heard Hawk give on the case.

After Fahey gave the final rebuttal, the case went to the jury. Their first ballot, says Cartel, was seven to five for acquittal, so clearly Hawk had gotten the right impression. In fact, the jury did tell the judge at one point that they had reached an impasse. But negotiation has a life of its own. They were to take 16 more votes over the next 46 hours of deliberation, and in January 1973 the jury convicted Corona of all 25 counts of first-degree murder, more than anyone in America to date. (In short order, 27 murders would be attributed to Dean Corll in Texas, but since he was killed by one of his accomplices, he never stood trial.) Corona received 25 life sentences, with the possibility of parole. The jury members who talked about it later said that Hawk had made a mistake resting his case without using any witnesses.

But it was not yet over. The case was appealed and Corona awaited the decision.

 

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