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16 years after murders, Juan Corona is an enigma

By SUSAN KROHN

SAN FRANCISCO -- Juan Corona has spent the last 14 years in prison, serving time for the grisly murders of 25 migrant farmworkers he claims he did not kill.

The quiet, uncommunicative former labor contractor lives in a protected area of Soledad Prison, reserved for convicts who have some noteriety and need protection. He still bears the scars of an attack by several other prisoners in 1972, when he was repeatedly stabbed and lost one eye.

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Corona, 53, has had three heart attacks in prison and has spent most of his years a feeble, gaunt and sickly man. But as his second parole hearing approaches next Tuesday, Corona's demeanor has changed, his lawyer says.

'He looks healthier, even taller -- much better than he did in 1984,' said attorney Don Condren after visiting his client last Tuesday.

'He's done a lot of things in prison, including attending a couple years of high school courses,' Condren said. 'He got all As and all his teachers said they were glad to have him in class.'

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In addition to a full class load, Corona has worked in the prison library, the kitchen and as a janitor. But one thing he hasn't done is openly discuss the murders.

'I ask him about it and he answers on a different subject,' Condren said. 'He won't talk about the killings. He's just leaving us in the dark.'

Corona was arrested in 1973 and convicted of hacking and stabbing 25 farm workers to death in 1971. His conviction was overturned on appeal but was convicted again in 1982.

The bodies were found buried in shallow graves in a prune orchard near Feather River, 5 miles north of Yuba City. The prosecution charged that Corona's motive was robbery.

Because there were no witnesses and no direct evidence, the prosecution built its case on circumstantial evidence -- blood traces, two knives and a bolo machete found in Corona's vehicles and, in his files, a green ledger with 34 names, seven of them victims of the mass murder.

The absence of direct evidence was blamed on sloppy detective work.

Fingerprints were taken from Corona's vehicles but not from the property of the victims. Moreover, no forensic anthropologist was called to inspect the graves, some of which were photographed with World War II surplus film that was so old the pictures didn't come out.

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'It seems to me that this case is being handled by a bunch of amateurs,' Judge Richard Patton said during the first trial. 'I would say at this point that the investigation was inept, the preparation inefficient and the prosecution inadequate.'

Corona's highly publicized second trial dragged on seven weeks, featuring 1,300 exhibits and testimony from 175 witnesses, at a cost of $5 million to taxpayers.

Throughout the proceedings, Corona said he was not responsible for the murders. Defense lawyers Terence Hallinan and Michael Mendelson argued it was Corona's elder half-brother, Natividad Corona -- plagued by syphilis and outbursts of violence -- who killed the farmworkers in a homosexual rage.

One witness said he saw Natividad shortly before he left the Yuba City area in April 1971 driving one of the victims to work in his brother's van.

Natividad Corona is thought to have returned to Mexico shortly thereafter and died. Hair and blood found in the vehicle were used as evidence against Juan Corona.

The California Board of Prison Terms is to decide Tuesday whether Corona should be released on parole, but Condren said it is unlikely.

'His parole hearing is going to be no different than the thousands that preceded it. The chances are that parole is going to be more seriously considered after he's been in prison 20 years,' Condren said.

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Before the last parole hearing, the state Board of Prison Terms received numerous recommendations that parole be denied, including a joint resolution by the California Legislature and letters from elected officials. Attorney General John Van de Kamp and Gov. George Deukmejian both sent letters, calling Corona the 'most dangerous man in California.'

For the second parole hearing 'there have been a few communications, but none from anyone of note,' said Robert Patterson, executive officer of the Board of Prison Terms. 'There doesn't seem to be a lot of public outcry.'

Convicts up for parole must be visited by a psychiatrist before the hearing. Based on the 20- to 40-minute session, the psychiatrist makes a recommendation on whether the parole candidate would be a danger to society, Condren said.

Corona met with a psychiatrist last week, but he was unable to make a recommendation, Condren said.

'The psychiatrist's report said that going by his record, Corona would be a danger, but going by the session, there's no way to evaluate whether he would be now,' Condren said. 'That's unusual.'

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