Monday, October 21, 2002
Sassounian Gets Life With Parole for Assassination in Sentencing Deal
By LORELEI LAIRD, Staff Writer
Prosecutors agreed Friday to drop a special circumstances allegation against convicted assassin Harry Sassounian, who has been in prison for nearly 20 years for the murder of a Turkish diplomat.
Sassounian will become eligible for parole in 2007 as part of a plea bargain reached as he was about to face retrial on the allegation that he was motivated by the national origin of his victim, Turkish General Consul Kemal Arikan.
“I participated in the murder of Kemal Arikan,” Sassounian aloud from a letter detailing the plea bargain. “I renounce the use of terrorist tactics to achieve political goals. I regret the suffering of the Arikan family.”
Sassounian’s conviction has not been in doubt, but a federal appeals court struck down the national origin special circumstance two years ago and for the first time opened up the possibility that Sassounian could one day leave prison on parole.
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley vowed to take Sassounian back to court to get the special circumstance reinstated.
Prosecutor Greg Dohi said Friday that the agreement was a victory for the state.
“The district attorney’s office achieved something important with today’s decision, and that’s admission, finally, that Mr. Sassounian took part in this political assassination,” Dohi said. “By admitting to his role and renouncing violence, we hope that this brings resolution to this very sad chapter in the history of the Armenian cause and the Turkish nation.”
Under the terms of the agreement, Sassounian will serve a prison term of 25 years to life, will not be eligible for parole until Sept. 28, 2007 and will waive 6,423 days’ worth of sentence credits for time already served and good behavior.
Sassounian was convicted in 1984 of first-degree ambush murder in Arikan’s death at a Westwood street corner. Witnesses saw two young men shoot Arikan, then stash their weapons under nearby shrubbery and drive away in a gray car. One witness noted the license plate number of the gray car, which authorities determined to belong to Sassounian. Witnesses later identified Sassounian, then 19, as the young man who stood next to the passenger side of the car during the shooting.
Vengence for Genocide
Prosecutors at Sassounian’s murder trial argued that he was motivated to kill Arikan by vengeance for the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of an estimated million Armenians between 1915 and 1923. Dohi said in January that he had evidence for this in the form of pictures of Sassounian in front of a monument to a known Armenian assassin of Turkish officials, as well as documents in which Sassounian expressed extreme views on Armenian nationalism.
Originally, Sassounian was charged with the national origin special circumstance as well as the special circumstances of lying in wait and personal use of a firearm. The jury hung on the latter two charges, which were dismissed with prejudice at Sassounian’s first trial.
In October 2000, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the murder conviction, but reversed the national origin special circumstances conviction over the question of the admissibility of a phone call to the Turkish Consulate threatening or taking credit for the assassination on the behalf of the Justice Commandos for the Armenian Genocide.
The call was not admitted into evidence, but the Ninth Circuit ruled that the jury had been tainted by overhearing the argument. It also took issue with one juror’s request to change her vote after 15 days of deliberation because she had been ill at the trial and felt pressured by other jurors.
In that ruling, Ninth Circuit judge Kim Wardlaw said that without hearing the argument, the jury might not have found true the national origin allegation.
“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.”
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Cooley said his office would retry Sassounian on the national origin allegation. At the time Dohi said he wished to retry the lying in wait allegation as well, but Judge Robert J. Perry ruled in January that because the lying in wait allegation was already dismissed with prejudice, it could not be used again. The prosecution did not try to revisit the personal use of a firearm allegation, Dohi said last year, because Sassounian had already been convicted of murder and the jury had not been instructed on aiding and abetting.
Dohi noted that Sassounian is not eligible for parole for five years, and that the agreement specifically frees him to oppose it. The agreement also nullifies over 17 years’ worth of sentence credits Sassounian has amassed since his arrest and allows the court to re-sentence Sassounian if he becomes eligible for parole before Sept. 28, 2007.
Under the agreement, Perry also dismissed the national origin charge with prejudice, noting as he did that the tactic had served Geragos’ father, Paul Geragos, who handled the defense up to the Ninth Circuit, very well.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company