Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Juan Corona: Rush to Judgment?

Back to Court

By the end of his first year at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Corona was attacked by four other inmates. They slashed and stabbed him so many times (32) that he nearly died. Allegedly, he then confessed the murders to a priest. He lost an eye in this incident, but then recovered. The priest was not allowed to reveal the confession, but somehow it got into some accounts about the case.

And there were two more confessions. According to David Frasier, in 1978, Mexican consular official Jesus Rodriguez-Navarro visited Corona in prison. Later he quoted the convicted man as saying, "Yes, I did it, but I am a sick man and a sick man cannot be judged by the same standards as other men." That same year, says Cartel, he also agreed to a plea deal by confessing to the murders in a letter to Judge Patton, but he also recanted the contents of this letter.

Juan Corona, parole hearing
Juan Corona, parole hearing

Five years after the first trial ended, a California appeals court reviewed Corona's trial records and found that attorney Richard Hawk had not competently represented his client. He had attacked the police instead of exploring other options, such as a defense of mental incompetence (and he had known about Corona's past hospitalization). He also had called no witnesses for the defense, not even Corona himself (although he had hinted that he would). Frasier says that Hawk was even disbarred after the trial for income tax evasion. In addition, the role of ghostwriter Ed Cray, who had sat with Hawk during the trial to investigate it and write a book on the case, was scrutinized. The court decided that the arrangement to pay Hawk from book fees, based on an exclusive deal, constituted a conflict of interest.

In February 1982, Corona was back in court for a new trial. It took place in Hayward, California and lasted nearly twice a long as the first trial. Richard Fahey once again prosecuted it, but a better defense team took on Corona's case. Although several key witnesses were dead, the trial moved forward. Over a period of seven months, writes Frasier, 1,300 exhibits were admitted (Cartel says 620), and 175 witnesses took the stand (135 for the prosecution, says Cartel). The cost to California taxpayers was just short of five million dollars. But once again, no one offered any of the mental incompetence defenses that the appeals court had expected. Juan's half-brother, Natividad, was again held up to the jury as a viable suspect and the police investigation was thoroughly criticized. Corona himself took the stand to testify on his own behalf. Speaking through an interpreter, he denied any involvement in the crimes.

The jury took even longer this time — 54 hours over two weeks — to return a verdict of guilty. "Afterward," writes Frasier, "the foreman told the press that the most incriminating piece of evidence against Corona had been the so-called 'death ledger' for which the labor contractor had 'no reasonable explanation.'" Corona's sentence of 25 concurrent life terms was restored, with parole hearings every four years. The defense attorney requested a third trial, based on jury misconduct, but this was denied. One writer, Bill Tailbitzer, who received complete access to the police files and court records, concluded that Corona was clearly the likeliest suspect. Some people believe that he was railroaded, but others believe he's guilty of even more murders than came to light in this case. Two juries were convinced, despite the mismanaged investigation, that Juan Corona and no other murdered those 25 men. Thus, he remains among the pantheon of American monsters.

 

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