In 1951, Pete Hernandez, a 21-year-old, single, Mexican-American cotton picker, was drinking with a friend at a bar in Edna, a small town in Jackson County, Texas, when he became disruptive and was removed from the bar. Pete went home, obtained a gun, returned, and shot Joe Espinosa. In September 1951, he was indicted for murder.
Prior to trial, Hernandez’s lawyers moved to quash the indictment and the jury panel. They argued that persons of Mexican descent had been systematically excluded from serving as jury commissioners, grand jurors, and petit jurors even though there were such persons living in Jackson County who were fully qualified to serve. Hernandez’s lawyers were able to establish that 14 percent of the county’s population were persons with Mexican or Latin American surnames and that 11 percent of the male population over 21 years of age had such names. The state of Texas stipulated that “for the last 25 years there is no record of any person with a Mexican or Latin American surname having served on a jury commission, grand jury, or petit jury in Jackson County.” The parties also stipulated that “there are some male persons of Mexican or Latin American descent in Jackson County who, by virtue of being citizens, householders, or freeholders, and having all other legal prerequisites to jury service, are eligible to serve as members of a jury commission, grand jury, and/or petit jury.”
Hernandez’s lawyers argued that exclusion of persons of Mexican or Latin American descent deprived him, as a member of this class, of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After a hearing, the trial court judge denied the lawyers’ motions. At trial, the motions were repeated, evidence was again taken, and the motions were once more denied.
At Hernandez’s trial in District Court in Jackson County, his lawyers could only call Hernandez himself as a witness. The state, on the other hand, called eight witnesses to testify against Hernandez. In October 1951, after only four hours of deliberation, an all-Anglo jury found Hernandez guilty of murder with malice and sentenced him to life in prison. That judgment was appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The sole basis of appeal was that the trial court erred in denying the petitioner’s motions. The appellate court affirmed the trial court judgment but passed on the federal question involved. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review that decision.
The Court considered the following question:
Is the equal protection of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment violated when a state tries a person of a particular race or ancestry before a jury in which all persons of that race or ancestry have been excluded from serving?
Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court, which agreed with the arguments of Hernandez’s attorneys and overturned his conviction. The Chief Justice wrote: “In numerous decisions, this court has held that it is a denial of the equal protection of the laws to try a defendant of a particular race or color under an indictment issued by a grand jury, or before a petit jury, from which all persons of his race or color have, solely because of that race or color, been excluded by the state, whether acting through its legislature, its courts, or its executive or administrative officers.” Warren noted: “The State of Texas would have us hold that there are only two classes -- white and Negro -- within the contemplation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decisions of this Court do not support that view.”
The Chief Justice continued: “When the existence of a distinct class is demonstrated, and it is further shown that the laws, as written or applied, single out that class for different treatment not based on some reasonable classification, the guarantees of the Constitution have been violated. The Fourteenth Amendment is not directed solely against discrimination due to a ‘two-class theory’ -- that is, based upon differences between ‘white’ and Negro.” Warren then noted that Hernandez’s burden to substantiate the charge of group discrimination was “to prove that persons of Mexican descent constitute a separate class in Jackson County, distinct from ‘whites.’ … Here, the testimony of responsible officials and citizens contained the admission that residents of the community distinguished between ‘white’ and ‘Mexican.’ … Until very recent times, children of Mexican descent were required to attend a segregated school for the first four grades. At least one restaurant in town prominently displayed a sign announcing ‘No Mexicans Served.’ On the courthouse grounds at the time of the hearing, there were two men’s toilets, one unmarked, and the other marked ‘Colored Men’ and ‘Hombres Aqui.’ No substantial evidence was offered to rebut the logical inference to be drawn from these facts, and it must be concluded that petitioner succeeded in his proof.”
Warren concluded with the following: “But it taxes our credulity to say that mere chance resulted in there being no members of this class among the over 6,000 jurors called in the past 25 years. The result bespeaks discrimination, whether or not it was a conscious decision on the part of any individual jury commissioner. … Petitioner’s only claim is the right to be indicted and tried by juries from which all members of his class are not systematically excluded – juries selected from among all qualified persons regardless of national origin or descent. To this much, he is entitled by the Constitution.”
Sources: For a complete treatment of this case, see: Michael Olivas. “Colored Men” and “Hombres Aqui”: Hernandez v. Texas and the Emergence of Mexican-American Lawyering. Houston, Texas, Arte Publico Press, 2006. ISBN 10: 1-55885-476-2. Also, see Ignacio Garcia. White But Not Equal: Mexican Americans, Jury Discrimination, and The Supreme Court. Tucson, The University of Arizona Press, 2009.
- Hernandez v. Texas: A Presentation by Michael A. Olivas
University of Delaware Institute for Public Administration
- PBS.org: “A Class Apart” Teacher’s Resources
- “Jury Bias Put to High Court,” by Sarah McClendon, San Antonio Light, Jan. 12, 1954. The only news story filed by a reporter who was present at the Supreme Court when Carlos Cadena and Gus Garcia argued the case.