Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Juan Corona: Rush to Judgment?

The Legal Game

The defense strategy was to get the jury to ponder the possibility that someone had tried to frame Corona by planting receipts in a grave not yet opened. But the victim had been dead for much longer than the four days indicated by the receipts, so the police had done some data reorganization. Hawk accused them of switching body IDs in their analysis to attempt to link one of the fresher bodies with the receipt as a way to prove murder in that case.

Juan Corona
Juan Corona

Police witnesses testified that the body they had dug up had been so fresh that there was no decomposition odor, and morticians admitted to errors and confusion as they'd picked up the bodies. They had given the bodies a numbering system different from that used by the police, so the end result was that some bodies had received more than one number. That was really what the confusion amounted to, said the prosecution; it wasn't about intentional evidence manipulation. Yet in the end, no one really knew what the testimony on this issue actually came to. Hawk insisted that the prosecution could manipulate the body numbering system to make whatever case they wished to make. Possibly, they had, but neither side could prove its position. A bag of fingertips removed from the victims to better manage the biological evidence, Cartel indicates, turned out to have been mislabeled in several cases. The judge was once again miffed.

Other items of evidence were a candle and fragments of a candle holder that resembled one from Corona's Sullivan ranch office, and the prosecution suggested that it had been part of some superstitious religious ritual. Yet once again, Hawk contended that it could have been planted, for why would only one grave contain so much "evidence" — and the last one opened, at that?

Donald Dale Smith, victim
Donald Dale Smith, victim

He attacked again and again, pointing out one error made after another made by most of the officials involved. There was no doubt that the investigation and handling of bodies had been done badly, and that reports were both incomplete and inaccurate. To some extent, given the conditions during the lengthy and unappetizing dig, it was understandable. As well, no one in that county had ever dealt with a case like that before (nor in the country, for that matter), and so evidence handling was rather unprofessional, with deputies leaving their own fingerprints on items yet to be dusted (although they never were). No fingerprints were taken off any other piece of evidence, either, to ensure that no one besides Corona had handled such things as his pistol and the ledger of names. It was a case full of holes.

Corona himself remained stoic and mute throughout the proceedings, showing polite respect to his attorney and fully supported by his angry and unhappy family. One sister had come from Mexico to attend each day's proceedings, and his four children were always there. Occasionally he looked back at them. In a U.S. court to date, no one had ever been tried on this many murder charges — all 25. Even the judge questioned why the People had elected to include them all, which considerably lengthened the trial and strained the county resources, but the strategy was to overwhelm the jury with the sheer brutality of a man who could kill and bury so many men over such a short span of time.

Warren Jerome Kelley, victim
Warren Jerome Kelley, victim

Yet they had not been able to prove that Corona was homosexual, and originally the case had rested on the idea that some sort of homosexual liaison had inspired the crimes. Hawk played this up by explaining that the victims had been exposed in such a way as to indicate that they had played the "male" role, which meant the killer had been the receptive one, the masochist. And masochists, when Mexican, were often filled with shame over their secret desires. After a sexual encounter, such a person would then become homicidally enraged and able to kill his partner. (Hawk claimed that he had an expert to attest to this, but in the end, he brought no such person into the trial. His information, says Kidder, came from a book.) 

This information was Hawk's attempt to bring Natividad into the picture. He was already known to be gay, so it was a small step to implicate him as the shamed partner who might repeatedly kill. But the police, in their inefficiency, had never even investigated the possibility of any other suspect, let alone an equally viable one. Hawk was not allowed to name Natividad during his opening statement without clear evidence, but the implication hung in the air, strengthened by Hawks occasional hints. Frasier says that Hawk made it clear that the chief suspect had killed the men in rage over a case of syphilis that he'd contracted during some incident of casual sex.

As the case moved along, reporters and jury members alike grew bored and confused. The predictions lined up against Teja and his team, as they appeared to have thrown together a stick house in a hurricane. But there were yet some surprises in store, notably from the defense.


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