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Landmark court case the subject of UHV lecture

Jon Wilcox By Jon Wilcox

April 4, 2017 at 10:42 p.m.
Updated April 5, 2017 at 6 a.m.

David Cockrum, interim University of Houston-Victoria provost, gives a basket of sweet-tea-flavored jam from Vela Farms to featured lecturer Michael Olivas as a gift.

David Cockrum, interim University of Houston-Victoria provost, gives a basket of sweet-tea-flavored jam from Vela Farms to featured lecturer Michael Olivas as a gift.   JON WILCOX/ JWILCOX@VICAD.COM for The Victoria Advocate

Jury duty is a privilege, said law professor Michael Olivas.

"If you knew how much effort had gone into trying to get Mexicanos to be allowed to serve on juries, you would never say, 'I just can't do it,'" he said about serving on a jury.

Olivas, the interim president for the University of Houston-Downtown, is the author of at least 15 books. More than 100 eager listeners packed the Multipurpose Room in the UHV University North building Tuesday to hear his talk about a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that transformed the jury selection process.

Although many may remember Brown v. Board of Education, the case celebrated for overturning racial segregation in public schools, few, Olivas said, recall Hernandez v. Texas.

Jackson County and Edna were not always welcoming of Latinos, Olivas said. He pointed to the only restaurant in the city during the 1950s as an example.

"It had a sign on it ... and the sign said, 'No Mexicanos ni perros' - 'No Mexicans or dogs allowed here,'" said Olivas, translating.

When Pedro Hernandez was found guilty by an all-white jury of shooting and killing a Latino man in 1950 at an Edna saloon, the defendant's attorneys appealed. Examining county court records revealed a startling discovery of systematic injustice.

Although more than 6,000 people had served in Jackson County juries, not one was Mexican-American, Olivas said. Hernandez's attorneys argued the elimination of Latinos from Jackson County juries was a violation of the 14th Amendment, which requires equal protection under the law for U.S. citizens.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed.

"In Texas, the world (was) divided into two," Olivas said. "You are white, or you are black."

By that logic, Latinos, who were not considered black in Texas at the time, were white.

Despite the lower court's ruling, Hernandez's attorneys argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 that the prejudice and segregation of Latinos in Jackson County demonstrated they were treated with prejudice like blacks.

Most telling was a bathroom in the now-burned- down Edna courthouse. While whites used an unmarked restroom in an upper floor, blacks and Latinos were expected to use another in the basement.

That bathroom was distinguished with a sign reading "Colored Men and Hombres Aqui."

Citing that sign as an example, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Hernandez's favor, striking down his jury conviction and resetting his trial in Refugio County. At his second trial, two Mexican-American women served on the jury.

Despite the civil rights victory, Hernandez, who was witnessed fatally shooting down another man in a crowded bar, was reconvicted.

"No surprise there," Olivas said.

Although Hernandez was buried in a Port Lavaca pauper's grave, he now rests in Austin.

In the more than six decades that have followed Hernandez v. Texas, Latinos living in the state have witnessed stark social change, Olivas said. Still, there is work to be done, he said.

That legal victory has changed how courts view the trial by a jury of peers, he said.

"It doesn't mean you all make the same money. It doesn't mean you all live in the same block," he said. "It's come to mean you come from the same tribe."


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