Open Letter to Steve Cooley LA County District Attorney Regarding Hampig Sassounian’s Retrial

Dear Mr. Cooley, The Sassounian Defense Committee was formed shortly after Harry (Hampig) Sassounian’s arrest almost 20 years ago. Three of the original members are still on the committee. Two joined the committee about eight years ago–and four more very recently. The composition of the committee has been diverse and has included attorneys–teachers–businessmen–housewives–and graduate students.

The purpose of the SDC has been and remains primarily the raising of funds to guarantee Hampig a fair and impartial trial through competent representation. To achieve that purpose–the SDC has at various times engaged in organizing peaceful demonstrations as the courthouse–speaking at townhall meetings in Armenian community centers–disseminating press releases appearing on local Armenian television programs–and of course–organizing large fund raising functions.

To date–the SDC raised and paid more than $400,000.00 in attorney’s fees and costs for the trial–hearings–and appeals. This sum was raised by thousands of very concerned individuals–young and old–rich and poor–at private gatherings in lieu or flowers or gifts–from Los Angeles to New York and abroad. A petition consisting of 100,000 signatures were received from former Soviet Armenia and thousands signed petitions here in Los Angeles. We also received a large number of postcards from around the world.

For the past 20 years–the SDC–and with it the community–have lived through periods of great hope and extreme disappointment. Through it all–we never wavered from our single-minded dedication to seeing Hampig’s innocence vindicated. In spite of criticisms from some opponents–and tortured decisions by some cautious–and perhaps timid judges we never lost our faith in the American judicial system–and our resolve strengthened as a result of some well reasoned and courageous rulings by other judges and the US magistrates.

We cannot say the same–however–about the integrity of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office then and now. Thanks to your decision to retry Sassounian on the special circumstance charge–the Armenian community is once more subjected to extreme periods of expectations and disappointment. It was only a few months ago that the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the special circumstance conviction on grounds of jury misconduct. Yet–in the wake of the tragic events of September 11th–and in spite of your earlier indications that you would not retry the case–you seem to have seen fit to gain political mileage out of the prevailing mood of the country by announcing–one day later–that you would retry the special circumstance charge. And that was after the Attorney General of California had already decided to stop further proceedings and no t appeal the reversal to the US Supreme Court. Turning your back on a community largely responsible for your victory will be well remembered at the polls.

Consider for a moment the gravity of your decision to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers money solely for the purpose of preventing Sassounian to apply for parole sometime in the future and after already 20 years in prison. What are your grounds for a retrial–Mr. Cooley? Allow us to answer it for you. But first–it is important that we ,mention certain crucial facts:

1. From the very beginning–two factors convinced us that Sassounian’s trial was destined to be anything but fair. One was the fact that the victim was an official of the Turkish government and therefore the pressure that the Turkish government would bring to bear on the local authorities. The other was the decision to try Sassounian in State court rather than US court where logic is dictated. The reason was quite obvious: the death penalty was not available under US law–but was legal in California.

2. Sassounian was convicted of the special circumstance charge–if not of the crime of killing as such–largely as a result of a jailhouse snitch’s fabricated testimony which was prepared and hand-fed by the DA’s office with offers of favors that we shall allude to later. As you know–the snitch testified that while in jail–Sassounian supposedly told him that he killed the Turkish Consul because of his Turkish nationality. The prosecuting attorney described the snitch’s testimony as "devastating" for the special circumstance charge. The trial judge commented that the only evidence that "proves the special circumstance…is the extra-judicial statement which is uncorroborated." And the California Court of Appeals stated that the special circumstance largely depended on the snitch’s testimony. In fact–that testimony was–"virtually the only evidence the People actually succeeded in introducing which bore directly on the special circumstance issue…"

3. When the defense attorney demanded to see the jailhouse records to show that Sassounian could not have spoke to the snitch–the records had mysteriously disappeared.

4. The jury never found that Sassounian had actually used a gun.

5. Eyewitnesses differed as to whether or not Sassounian was one of the individuals involved in the killing. One even insisted that it was not Sassounian.

6. One of the jurors asked the trial judge if she could change her vote of guilty on the special circumstance issue after the verdict was returned.

7. Consider the jailhouse snitch’s confessions–"in his own words and signed under penalty of perjury–to a private investigator named Sue Sarkis about his false testimony regarding his conversation with Sassounian:

a. I was unable to identify suspect Sassounian…and it was like I can’t identify him–so he [Det. Enquist] just said–well this is the guy right here. I believe both the Deputy District Attorney and det. Enquist knew I never spoke with Sassounian

b. I never came into personal contact with nor had a conversation with Harry M. Sassounian thereby making it impossible for him to have ‘confessed’ to me.

c. I provided small bits and pieces of information given to me by another inmate.

d. The rest of the information I provided in my testimony about the "alleged" confession was–in fact–provided by Det. Enquist and Deputy District Attorney Lael Ruben.

e. …like right before the hearing and all the (expletive) they gave me all the paperwork–all the everything and I had to go through read every (expletive) thing there was. Went through everything over–and over–and over.

f. Det. Enquist had informed me that the Armenia’s were very dangerous people. He informed me about the long feud which had been going on between the Turks and the Armenia’s since somewhere back around 1914.

g. While in custody–awaiting the trial–I was given money by Det. Enquist. He would give me $20.00 here and there–cigarettes and other small–but very important while incarcerated–type of items.

h. When I finished my time in jail–he took me to a nightclub provided me with anywhere from $20.00 to $100.00 on numerous occasions: and he bought me a used blue Pinto automobile.

I. In return for my testimony–I was promised by both the Deputy District Attorney and Det. Enquist that I would be provided with protection and a change of name and relocation when the matter was over.

j. Det. Enquist promised to help me with "sentence modifications and had his brother–a Deputy District Attorney in Orange County–take care of some small matters I had pending in Orange County.

As we all know now–two months after the snitch’s written confession–another district attorney investigator interviewed him in Chino prison. One month later another Deputy District Attorney drafted a 6 page declaration in which the snitch recanted his previous confession. The reasons given by the snitch? He was "high on drugs" and felt intimidated by a dark-haired woman–whom he supposedly thought was a relative of Sassounian–who had accompanied Sue Sarkis. What reasonable person can read all that and not have his intelligence insulted?

In the retrial of the special circumstance charge–the jury presumably will not consider evidence not admitted at trial–thus avoid repeating the same error that led to the reversal of the special circumstance verdict. Further–you will not call the snitch to testify as no jury will believe him now. So–returning to the question we asked above–"What are your grounds for a retrial–Mr. Cooley?" you are left with one option–and that is to point to the Armenian people and say that they hate the Turks–and Sassounian being an Armenian–could only have killed the Turkish Consul because of his Turkish nationality–thus sidestepping any other consideration or motivation. That is nothing short of ethnic profiling at its worse and an affront to the Armenian community everywhere.

The SDC believes that the course of action embarked upon by you is shocking to the sensitivities of the Armenian people. In the name of all Armenia’s who have steadfastly stood by Sassounian’s side–we believe that the prudent and just action left is to drop this cold blooded–cruel–and insulting gamesmanship for personal political ends at the expense of justice to a young man who has spent the prime of his life in prison–based on the fabricated testimony of a jailhouse snitch. Very truly yours, Sassounian Defense Committee

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