León Cárdenas Martínez, Jr., Trial

By: Thomas Woods

Type: General Entry

Published: September 5, 2018

Updated: April 27, 2021

On May 11, 1914, León Cárdenas Martínez, Jr., was executed for the murder of Emma Brown in Pecos, Texas, despite a Texas law preventing the execution of minors. The case was associated with one of the most prolonged efforts to save a Tejano, and for more than three years such organizations as the Mexican Protective Association of San Antonio and the Partido Liberal Mexicano as well as the Mexican government provided aid to the Martínez family in appealing the boy’s sentence. Martínez’s sentence and hanging ultimately acted as a catalyst for mutual aid societies (sociedades mutualistas) to address the issue of lynching and unusual punishment of Mexican people across the Southwest.

On July 23, 1911, León Cárdenas Martínez was arrested in Saragosa in Reeves County by two officers from the Reeves County sheriff’s office, who were investigating the murder of Emma Brown, a White school teacher. According to an account given by his father, León Cárdenas Martínez, Sr, immediately after his son’s arrest, Martínez Jr. was taken to the location of Emma Brown’s murder and forced at gunpoint to confess or be lynched by local ranchers. Additionally, on the night of the arrest, Reeves County Sheriff Pink A. Harbert and a number of other men forced Martínez Sr., the proprietor of a local butcher shop, to leave his shop and also vacate his home with his family and leave town by way of the desert.

Over the next five days Martínez Jr. was kept in prisons in Pecos and Midland. The transfers were in part meant to thwart potential threats of lynching by Pecos citizens. On July 28, 1911, his trial took place. Although the only evidence that he was guilty was the forced confession, the jury was composed of jurors who had already formed an opinion of the defendant’s guilt, and the prosecution intimidated witnesses who testified on Martínez’s behalf. During the trial, Martinez’s defense attorneys focused on proving that their client was a minor, which would prevent him from receiving the death penalty. His father stated that his son was fifteen years old at the time of the crime. Both of his parents testified to his age, but their testimony and their efforts to provide birth and baptism certificates were ignored in favor of other witnesses, who guessed that the age of the defendant was about eighteen or nineteen. Ultimately, Martínez was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Several efforts were made to appeal the sentence, beginning with the Mexican Protective Association of San Antonio, which raised money for this purpose. The Partido Liberal Mexicano, which counted Martínez’s father as a member, also offered aid. The Sociedad Obreros of Laredo sent a petition to Governor Oscar Colquitt and asked that the death sentence be commuted to a life sentence. The petition also had the attachment of a document showing that the defendant was born on June 10, 1895, and therefore too young for the death penalty. The Mexican government, on Martínez’s behalf, hired lawyers to file a writ of habeas corpus with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to review the sentence. According to the November 3, 1911, issue of the San Antonio Express, Robert P. Coon of San Antonio, J. F. Cunningham of Abilene, and George Bates of El Paso represented the defendant. This appeal temporarily postponed the hanging, but the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The defense lawyers appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but when the case finally came before the high court it was dismissed because Martínez’s lawyers failed to follow through on some technical requirements. This did not stop efforts to gain a pardon, and in April 1914, Mexican Americans in Waco formed the Comité de Defensa to publicize the case. They were followed quickly in their efforts to raise publicity by La Prensa in San Antonio and El Guardia del Bravo in Laredo. This increased publicity resulted in hundreds of clemency petitions, but Texas Governor Oscar Colquitt ignored these requests. The Mexican government conducted one last-ditch effort to prevent Martínez’s execution by asking the Spanish ambassador, Juan Raino, to appeal to Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. On May 9, 1914, two days before Martínez was sentenced to be hanged, Raino communicated this request and Bryan relayed this to Governor Colquitt, who again refused. On May 11, 1914, León Cárdenas Martínez, Jr., was executed by hanging.

Martínez’s death sentence, alongside the earlier lynching of Antonio Gómez, led to the convention of El Primer Congreso Mexicanista, which sought to effectively combat segregation, lynching, police brutality, and unusual punishment for Mexican Americans. More than 400 Mexican American leaders, mostly from the middle class, developed strategies to achieve these goals.

Laredo Weekly Times, August 27, 1911; March 22, 1919. F. Arturo Rosales, Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights History (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2006). F. Arturo ¡Pobre Raza!: Violence, Justice, and Mobilization Among México Lindo Immigrants, 1900–1936 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999). F. Arturo Rosales, Testimonio: A Documentary History of the Mexican American Struggle for Civil Rights (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2000). San Antonio Express, November 3, 1911. San Antonio Light, May 11, 1914.

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Politics and Government
  • Court Cases and Controversies
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Thomas Woods, “León Cárdenas Martínez, Jr., Trial,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/leon-cardenas-martinez-jr-trial.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 5, 2018
April 27, 2021

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