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Richard Cruz; Chicano Rights Lawyer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Cruz, the crusading Chicano rights lawyer who led demonstrations to change policies of the Roman Catholic Church and government agencies and later used his legal talents to free a Latino wrongly convicted of murder, has died. He was 50.

Cruz, who acknowledged a 33-year smoking habit in a letter to friends before celebrating his 50th birthday on the Fourth of July, died of lung cancer Wednesday at his Los Angeles home, said his former wife, Rosa Martinez.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina saluted Cruz in a recent letter, written to congratulate him on his milestone birthday, as “a legal advocate who, instead of raking in the bucks, racked up a stellar reputation for his compassion, justness and commitment to those in need.”

Cruz was a leader in La Raza Unida, the political party of the Chicano movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He first attracted public--and police--attention on Christmas Eve, 1969, when he helped lead 1,000 demonstrators affiliated with the group Catolicos por La Raza at the newly constructed St. Basil’s Cathedral on Wilshire Boulevard.

“It turned into a tremendous riot, a bloody thing,” Cruz recalled in a 1983 interview with The Times.

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The protest led to the arrest of Cruz and 20 others. But he credited it with prompting the subsequent appointment of Latino bishops in the Southwest, the establishment of the church’s Campaign for Human Development, the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s support of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers union and a greater sensitivity by the archdiocese toward Latino customs such as mariachi music at Masses.

When Cruz the law student attempted to become a lawyer, the State Bar of California balked at certifying him, citing his “moral turpitude” in disturbing a religious service during the St. Basil’s incident. The American Civil Liberties Union and others went to bat for him, and Cruz was admitted to the Bar.

As an attorney in East Los Angeles, he successfully fought a Los Angeles County attempt in the 1970s to force sterilization procedures on indigent or undocumented patients at County-USC Medical Center. The policy, he argued, unconstitutionally discriminated against Latinos.

Cruz in 1982 won the dismissal of charges against Gordon Castillo Hall, a teen-ager who was wrongly convicted of a Duarte postman’s murder in 1978. Hired after the conviction, Cruz won the young man’s release from prison after 3 1/2 years on the grounds of inadequate legal representation and an unfair trial. Cruz obtained statements from witnesses who said Hall was at a party blocks away when the shooting occurred and others who cast doubt on his identity as the murderer.

At the time of his death, Cruz was still hoping that a pending civil suit over Hall’s wrongful imprisonment would repay him for work on that case and solve some of the financial difficulties brought on by his cancer treatment.

Cruz is survived by two children, Camilo and Paloma.

Services will be conducted at 2:30 p.m. today at North Hill Chapel, Forest Lawn Memorial--Park, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.


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