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.