Juan Corona: Rush to Judgment?
It took well over a year since the murders were discovered to get this case to trial. Hawk succeeded in getting a change of venue out of Sutter County, considered too inflamed by publicity to offer a fair proceeding. He also cultivated associations among the press to give a more favorable slant to his client (and himself), hinting that the real killer had framed his client by dropping things into one of the later graves to be found to further implicate Corona. In addition, he brought out the information that Corona's brother, Natividad, had been accused in the Marysville assault in 1970 and José Raya had won a settlement in that case. While Raya had changed his story several times, in the end, he had identified Natividad as his attacker.
His strategy paid off, writes Cartel, in encouraging demonstrations outside the courthouse on Corona's behalf, demanding justice and attacking the prosecutor and police. Yet he also got fined for breaking the gag order restrictions. Cartel (who calls him Charles Band) says he spent time in jail for it.
A key issue was whether the corpses could be accurately dated as to the time-since-death interval. The police had made several claims that the defense's pathologist said could not be proven. At the time, there were little agreement about time of death indicators, especially with respect to the specific factors of burial in those conditions and that climate. Any statements, therefore, were easily questioned.
The trial began on September 11, 1972, in the Solano County courthouse in Fairfield, CA, more than an hour from Yuba City. Jury selection took several weeks, and the trial itself another three months. Richard Hawk believed he could show that Juan's half-brother had been the killer, not Juan. Since the California Supreme Court had overturned the death penalty in that state, commuting to life all Death Row sentences, it would not be a capital case.
It was Teja's first experience with prosecuting first-degree murder, and while he followed the case every step of the way, Kidder indicates that he did not bother to have the blood found on the two knives in Corona's office tested for the blood types of any of the victims. It was a crucial oversight and he had to scramble in the end to get the test results in time. This angered the judge. Teja also got new handwriting experts to compare the ledgers against Corona's handwriting, and asked for hair samples from the defendant for testing. Yet a cigarette butt in the grave with the meat receipts tested positive for a blood type that matched neither Corona nor the victim. Despite the circumstantial logic, no physical evidence, at least going into the trial, supported Teja's case.
ADA Bart Williams, who would soon admit in court that he had some doubt about the case, offered an opening statement that took up two days of the court's time. Teja was aggravated. The prosecution intended to call a long line of witnesses to support its theory and offered a flashy exhibit — an electronic map with 25 lights that could be turned on at opportune moments as he recreated the opening of each grave. But the prosecution failed to turn over so many reports to the defense that the judge finally ordered its files brought to the courthouse and made completely available to Hawk. He took hundreds of pages of reports with him to study.
Then it turned out that the tire track cast that had been compared to the tires from Corona's vehicles was not the cast made at the first grave. Someone had mixed up the evidence from a different case. Finally the correct cast was located and sent for analysis. From the FBI lab in Washington, D.C., the report supposedly indicated an "extreme likelihood" that the tires that made the impressions at the graveside were those on Corona's van (although it was later stated more conservatively as a "possible" match — Corona's van could not be ruled out). This report apparently gave the ADA confidence, and he stated so in court. But Hawk indicated to any reporter who would listen that, since the police still had Corona's van in custody, they could have faked the evidence. He requested bail for his client for the seventh or eighth time since the case had begun, and again it was denied. Nevertheless, Judge Richard Patton scolded the prosecution for not giving him solid reason for denying bail, which was their job to do.
During the early weeks, the trial would continue to show prosecutorial ineptness as they pleaded for more time to finish forensic testing that should have been done months earlier. It did not look good to the jury, and one member who later was bumped for illness said as much to Hawk. That likely gave Hawk the wrong impression of where the case was going.