Thursday, January 31, 2002
Judge Rejects Lying-in-Wait Charge in Killing of Turkish Diplomat
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Prosecutors cannot retry an Armenian man convicted of assassinating a Turkish diplomat on the special circumstance of lying in wait, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled yesterday.
Judge Robert J. Perry said that because the special circumstance was dismissed with prejudice at the original 1984 trial of Harry M. Sassounian, the issue cannot be revived now. But the case will continue as prosecutors pursue the special circumstance that national origin motivated the killing.
The District Attorney’s Office last year opted to retry the special circumstance portion of the trial after a federal appeals court nullified the special circumstance because of juror misconduct.
Perry’s decision means that whether Sassounian eventually could be eligible for parole now hinges on whether prosecutors can convince a second jury that Arikan’s nationality was Sassounian’s motivation for the murder.
“Mr. Sassounian has been convicted of the crime of murder,” Perry said. “The only question is the reason for the murder. Did he do it for that reason or not?”
Turkish Consul General Kemal Arikan was gunned down by two men in 1982 at a Westwood intersection. Sassounian was convicted in 1984 of first-degree ambush murder with the special circumstance of intentionally killing the diplomat because of his nationality.
Prosecutors argue that Arikan was targeted to revenge the deaths of an estimated one million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks beginning in 1915.
The jury hung 11-1 on the special circumstances of lying in wait and personal use of a firearm.
Based on the jury’s special circumstance finding on Sassounian’s motivation for the murder, jurors recommended life in prison without parole. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty.
At Sassounian’s first trial the prosecution asked to dismiss the two hung special circumstances and they were dismissed with prejudice at the request of then-defense attorney Paul J. Geragos.
“He was clarifying the record and protecting his client,” Perry said of Geragos’ request to ask for dismissal with prejudice.
Motion to Strike
Mark Geragos, Sassounian’s current attorney, said he was extremely pleased with Perry’s decision to grant his motion to strike the lying-in-wait special circumstance.
“I’m a lot happier today than I was yesterday,” Geragos, whose father Paul handled the case up to the Ninth Circuit, said.
In October 2000, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Sassounian’s first-degree murder conviction, but reversed the jury’s finding on the national-origin special circumstance.
The court ruled that the jury’s finding had been tainted by an audible argument between lawyers over whether 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 should be admitted into evidence. It was never admitted.
District Attorney Steve Cooley announced last September, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that his office would retry Sassounian on the national-origin special circumstance. Deputy District Attorney Greg Dohi asked to also retry the lying in wait special circumstance.
The prosecution decided not to pursue the personal use of the firearm since Sassounian was already convicted of the murder and the jury never received instructions on aiding and abetting, Dohi said.
He would have preferred to go forward with the additional lying in wait special circumstance rather than just standing on the national-origin special circumstance, Dohi said.
“I understand his reasons, but I’m disappointed,” Dohi said.
To prove the national-origin special circumstance Dohi said he has photographs of Sassounian in front of a monument to another well-known Armenian assassin of Turkish diplomats and documents in which the defendant expresses “rather extreme views with regards to Armenian nationalism.”
Dohi also said he plans to have academics and law enforcement expert witnesses to testify on assassinations of other Turkish diplomats conducted in similar ways to the Arikan assassination.
Perry asked Dohi to provide a proffer of expert witnesses he plans to call and their expected testimony.
“That’s going to be a real issue in this case,” Perry said of the expert testimony.
Geragos said he plans to challenge the prosecution’s ability to proceed with the national-origin special circumstances. That motion is due in court Feb. 19.
A pre-trial hearing on whether the expert testimony is admissible will be held March 11.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company