SAN FRANCISCO — A state Court of Appeal, ruling in one of the longest criminal cases in California history, has upheld the mass-murder conviction of Juan V. Corona in the 1971 slayings of 25 itinerant farm workers.
The three-judge panel unanimously rejected a wide range of contentions in an appeal by Corona after a 1982 retrial. The second trial was held after his first conviction in 1972 was reversed because of incompetence by his lawyer at the time.
The court found that any procedural errors in the retrial were harmless and did not warrant a third trial in a case where there was "overwhelming circumstantial evidence" against the 55-year-old, one-time farm labor contractor.
"Justice in this extraordinary case has taken a long time to achieve at considerable expense," Appellate Justice Donald B. King wrote for the panel. "Perfection can rarely be achieved in such lengthy criminal proceedings and was not achieved here.
"However, a defendant is entitled to a fair trial but not a perfect one. We are fully satisfied that Corona's second trial was fair, and that, ultimately, justice has been accomplished for both Corona and the people of this state."
Michael Mendelson of San Francisco, the attorney who has represented Corona since 1978, said the ruling will be appealed to the state Supreme Court and then the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.
Corona was charged in the notorious stabbing and hacking deaths of the 25 male migrant workers whose bodies were found buried in shallow graves on two ranches near Yuba City, where Corona was employed.
Authorities said a search of his office, residence, car and van yielded two bloodstained knives, a post-hole digger in which human hairs were embedded, several bloodstained personal items and a ledger in his handwriting listing the names of seven identified victims.
At his retrial, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for each of the murders, with the terms to run concurrently.
In his appeal, Corona argued that the jury in his retrial had improperly heard testimony from a Mexican consular official, who said Corona had confessed the murders during a 1978 meeting held to discuss his eligibility for a prisoner exchange program between Mexico and the United States.
The official, Jesus Rodriguez Navarro, said he asked Corona if it were true that he committed the crimes.
He said Corona replied, "Yes, I did it and I'm a sick man, and a sick man cannot be judged as the rest of them."
The appellate panel, in an opinion filed Wednesday, said that under an international treaty, testimony by a consular officer about official matters can be compelled only when his government waives the privilege of confidentiality.
Corona was correct in contending that the official did not have the independent authority to waive the privilege and that the judge should not have permitted the official to testify without the government's waiver, the court said.
However, the panel continued, the right of confidentiality is aimed to protect the government, and the right to invoke it belongs to the government and not to Corona.
"Corona was not an intended beneficiary of the privilege, and thus cannot reasonably complain that he was deprived of a windfall benefit to which he had absolutely no independent right," King wrote in a 54-page opinion joined by Appellate Justices Harry W. Low and Zerne P. Haning.
The panel turned down Corona's contention that the testimony also should have been excluded because the official did not give him a Miranda warning of his rights to silence and to counsel.
The official had visited Corona at the request of Corona's family, and thus was not acting as a police agent, the panel said. Even if the official had been a law enforcement officer, no warning was required because the Miranda mandate does not apply to foreign officers, it said.
On another issue, the panel rejected Corona's claim that his conviction should be reversed because the Sutter County Grand Jury that indicted him in 1971 did not include a representative number of Latinos, and thus did not reflect a fair cross-section of the community.
The court said reversal of a conviction is required automatically only when there is intentional discrimination in the selection of a grand jury, and Corona made no such claim here, the panel said. Where there is only an absence of a fair cross-section of the community, a new trial is required when there has been actual harm to a defendant, and in this case, no such harm has been shown, it said.
"Even assuming the grand jury was not drawn from a fair cross-section of the community, any such error was harmless and cannot lead to reversal," King said.
The panel further acknowledged that some forms of jury misconduct may have occurred at the retrial, such as jurors disregarding instructions not to read newspaper accounts of the case. But such claims either were inconclusive or were not serious enough to affect the verdict, the court said.