SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the life sentence of an Armenian convicted of assassinating a Turkish diplomat in Los Angeles, ruling that questionable testimony by a jailhouse informant did not affect the jury's verdict.
The case has generated controversy because two of the court's justices, Armand Arabian and Marvin Baxter, both of Armenian heritage, provided the votes necessary to give the convicted assassin a chance to plead his case and then excused themselves from deciding the outcome.
Both justices publicly declined to explain their reasons for stepping aside, but a knowledgeable source said they believed that their ties to the Armenian community could raise questions about their objectivity. Many in the Armenian community are sympathetic to the assassin, Harry M. Sassounian, who was 19 at the time of the crime, and have contributed money to his defense.
With two Court of Appeal justices sitting in place of Arabian and Baxter, the court voted unanimously to affirm Sassounian's sentence of life in prison without parole for the 1982 assassination of Turkish Consul General Kemal Arikan. Arikan was gunned down as he drove to work in Westwood.
A jailhouse informant testified during the trial that Sassounian told him that he killed the diplomat in revenge for atrocities that the Turks committed against Armenians. The Turks massacred more than 1 million Armenians from 1915 to 1918 in their historic homeland in eastern Turkey.
Sassounian's motive was important in determining his sentence. By finding that the assassination was motivated by national origin, the jury made Sassounian eligible only for execution or life in prison without parole. Without such a finding, he would have been sentenced to 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
The jailhouse informant, a convicted burglar, recanted his testimony only to later withdraw his recantation.
But the California Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Stanley Mosk, ruled that the jury still would have found that the crime was motivated by national origin even without the informant's testimony.
"Overwhelming evidence supports only one reasonable inference as to the national origin special circumstance," Mosk wrote. "Petitioner intentionally killed Arikan because he was Turkish."
When Arabian and Baxter excused themselves from the case, some legal analysts questioned why they had not abstained from the vote to grant Sassounian a hearing. Sassounian needed four votes to win Supreme Court review, and Arabian and Baxter provided two of them.
Arabian, appointed by former Gov. George Deukmejian, has written about the agony of his family at the hands of the Turks. In an article published in The Times in 1979, he described how his grandfather died before a Turkish firing squad and his grandmother was marched to a riverbank and forced to choose which of her two sons to take along as she swam for her life.
She chose the elder son, an 11-year-old who became the justice's father. The younger boy, 4, was left ashore, "standing with his arms outstretched, crying for his mother and brother," the justice wrote. "He never saw them again."
Despite his family's tragic past, Arabian gave a speech in 1984 denouncing various acts of terrorism against the Turks over the previous decade and deploring the "smug acceptance and encouragement" of them by some Armenians. "It is not our destiny," he said, "to join ranks with historical killers and try to outdo them."
Baxter, another Deukmejian appointee, also has strong ties to the Armenian community. His four grandparents were born in Armenia and emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s, settling in Fresno County. His paternal grandfather changed his name from Bagdasarian to Baxter in the 1930s, a time when Armenians in Fresno faced strong ethnic prejudice.
Some leaders of Southern California's large Armenian community expressed disappointment with the court's decision. Salpi Ghazarian, executive editor of the Armenian International magazine, said many in the community believe that Sassounian was not the assassin.
She said she would have preferred that Arabian and Baxter participate in the case, both of whom she described as "very active and very respected" in the Armenian community.
California Deputy Atty. Gen. David F. Glassman said the court's ruling will be helpful in rebuffing any claims by Sassounian in federal court.
But Charles Sevilla, Sassounian's lawyer, said Sassounian has "powerful facts" on his side to show that the informant lied, and that without his testimony, Sassounian might have been acquitted. Sevilla said he will go to federal court to seek a new trial.
"If you take out the informant's testimony, it becomes a much closer case," Sevilla said. "It is very difficult to say what a jury would do in retrospect had they not heard that evidence."