Attorney George Shibley, Defender of Sirhan, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Long Beach attorney George Shibley--who gained national prominence as a defender of several young Latinos in the racially tinged 1940s Sleepy Lagoon murder case and decades later as lawyer for Sirhan Sirhan--died Tuesday at age 79.

Shibley’s family said he died at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles after suffering cardiac arrest June 8 after heart surgery.

Shibley, a fervent believer in helping unpopular defendants get a fair trial, practiced law with his sons, Jonathan and William, in the same building where he set up practice in 1935 after graduating from Stanford University. Over the years, he represented nearly every labor union in the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbor area.


Eloquent Debater

“He was probably the most brilliant trial lawyer I’ve ever seen, from an old and vanishing school, who knew literature, who knew history, who could debate and be eloquent and argue,” William Shibley said Tuesday.

Jonathan Shibley recalled that his father won a products-liability verdict against Coca Cola Co. in the 1940s after a Coke bottle blew up and badly injured a person’s eye.

“Product-liability cases were hard to do then because strict liability did not exist,” he said. “It was rare, but he won it.”

The Sleepy Lagoon case, which later was the basis for the film and play “Zoot Suit,” involved 12 Latinos tried for the murder of a young Mexican immigrant found dead near a swimming hole along the Los Angeles River.

Newspapers of the era helped to fan simmering racial prejudice against the young men, who were not allowed to freely confer with their attorneys and were denied clean clothes during the trial.

They were convicted despite efforts of seven defense attorneys including Shibley, but Shibley launched such an avalanche of objections during the trial that he was later able to use as the basis of a successful appeal.

In 1986, Shibley recalled, “Depending on how you look at it, the case made me famous or infamous. It also made the forces of law and order hate me.”

During the trial, Shibley met actress Eleanor Shaw and married her just five days later.

The case of Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, again catapulted Shibley into the national spotlight.

Shibley was supporting Kennedy for President when the candidate was shot in Los Angeles on the night of his California primary victory 21 years ago. But Shibley took Sirhan’s case when Mary Sirhan sought his help after her son’s death sentence.

Life Sentence

Shibley and two other lawyers appealed Sirhan’s case to the California Supreme Court. However, Sirhan’s sentence was reduced to life in prison when, in an unrelated case in 1972, the state Supreme Court said the state Constitution prohibited the death penalty.

Often controversial, Shibley was convicted in 1957 of receiving stolen government records in connection with his defense of a Marine. When he arrived to begin his sentence, he was accompanied by 100 supporters protesting his conviction.

Characteristically, after Shibley was released from prison on Terminal Island 18 months later, he challenged a Long Beach ordinance requiring parolees to register their names as ex-convicts.