Monday, October 1, 2001
Prosecutors Seek Retrial of Special Circumstance Allegations in Assassination
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry on Friday slated an Oct. 31 hearing for defense motions in the special circumstances retrial of convicted assassin Harry M. Sassounian.
In a courtroom announcement, Deputy District Attorney Greg Dohl confirmed that his office would seek again to obtain a national-origin special circumstances conviction of Sassounian, who killed Turkish Consul General Kemal Arikan in 1982.
The 1984 murder conviction remains intact. But the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the jury’s finding that the assailant was motivated by his victim’s national origin was tainted by an audible argument between the lawyers over admission of evidence.
Since the Oct. 26, 2000 ruling, the District Attorney’s Office has been mulling whether to retry the special circumstances portion to secure life in prison without possibility of parole. Sassounian otherwise could eventually be released on parole.
District Attorney Steve Cooley released a statement that touched on the issues of terrorism and the deaths of an estimated one million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks beginning in 1915.
“I understand the acute concerns of the Armenian community in the wake of the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Armenians 86 years ago,” Cooley said. “But terrorism by one nationality or ethnic group against members of another cannot prevail in a free society.”
Arikan was shot down in his car at a Westwood intersection on Jan. 28, 1982.
Numerous witnesses saw two gunmen run from the scene and stash their weapons under a hedge, then escape in a gray car. One witness got the license number, which corresponded to a car belonging to Sassounian, then 19.
Three witnesses identified Sassounian as one of two men waiting on the corner a few minutes before the shooting and standing by the passenger side of Arikan’s car during the shooting.
The jury deliberated for 15 days, then found Sassounian guilty of first degree murder and found true the special circumstance of murder because of nationality or national origin.
Before the penalty phase, one juror asked whether she could change her vote, explaining she had been “unable to think clearly because of my illness and the pressure from the other jurors.”
The judge interviewed each juror and learned that during deliberations one juror mentioned a phone call made to the Turkish Consulate threatening or taking credit for the assassination on behalf of the Justice Commandos for the Armenian genocide.
No such call was ever admitted into evidence. It was instead the subject of a heated exchange at sidebar, supposedly out of the hearing of the jury.
In the Ninth Circuit ruling, Judge Kim Wardlaw said the jury’s discussion of the phone call was too important to ignore.
“It cannot be said that the other evidence amassed at trial was so overwhelming that the jury would have reached the same result even if it had not considered the extraneous material,” Wardlaw said. “Although the jury did hear other evidence related to the special circumstance, all of it was either circumstantial or challenged at trial.”
The phone call showed that the attackers targeted Arikan because he was Turkish, Wardlaw said. It also connected Sassounian to the crime.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company