People v. Sassounian

Decision Date30 May 1986
Citation182 Cal.App.3d 361,226 Cal.Rptr. 880
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of California, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Harry M. SASSOUNIAN, Defendant and Appellant. B005918.

Cleary & Sevilla, Charles M. Sevilla, for defendant and appellant.

John K. Van de Kamp, Atty. Gen., William R. Weisman, Supervising Deputy Atty. Gen., David F. Glassman, Deputy Atty. Gen., for plaintiff and respondent.

CROSKEY, Associate Justice. *

The defendant and appellant Harry M. Sassounian (herein the "defendant"), appeals from the judgment imposing upon him a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole following a jury trial in which he was found guilty of murder in the first degree (Pen.Code, § 187), with a true finding of the special circumstance that the killing was because of the victim's nationality or country of origin. (Pen.Code, § 190.2, subd. (a)(16).) 1


On the last morning of his life, Kemal Arikan (herein "Arikan"), the Consul General of the Republic of Turkey at Los Angeles, left his home in the Westwood area of Los Angeles to go to work, unaware that two armed men waited two blocks away to kill him for no other reason than he was who he was (i.e., a Turk, and an official representative of the government of Turkey). It was 9:40 a.m., January 28, 1982. He drove his usual route, east on Ashton Avenue to Comstock Street and north on Comstock with the intention of turning right on Wilshire Boulevard. He never made it.

The evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the judgment (People v. Brock (1985) 38 Cal.3d 180, 198, 211 Cal.Rptr. 122, 695 P.2d 209; People v. Johnson (1980) 26 Cal.3d 557, 576, 162 Cal.Rptr. 431, 606 P.2d 738), established that at about 9:45 a.m. on January 28, 1982, as Arikan stopped at the signal light at Comstock and Wilshire, two men, each armed with a large caliber handgun, approached the vehicle (which was equipped with California "Consular Corps" license plates), one from the driver's side and the other from the passenger's side, and fired a number of rounds at Arikan from very close range. Arikan died within a very few minutes from multiple gunshot wounds to the head and chest. Following the shooting the two gunmen ran south on Comstock, deposited their weapons under a hedge and then made their escape in a grey car. Unfortunately for the defendant, these events were witnessed by a number of people.

At least three eyewitnesses made a positive identification of the defendant as one of the two men who had been seen (1) waiting on the corner a few minutes before the shooting took place, 2 (2) standing by the passenger side of Arikan's vehicle while the shooting was going on 3 and then, (3) running south on Comstock with his companion while stuffing a large handgun into his waistband. In addition, a fourth eyewitness followed the two men, watched them hide their guns under a hedge and drive away in the grey car. He noted the number on the license plate (California license No. 534 TER) which information was given to the police. A grey Chevrolet bearing that license number was registered to the defendant. He was arrested at about 3 p.m. that afternoon near his Pasadena home driving that vehicle.

The defendant, an Armenian, had come with his family from Lebanon some six and one-half years earlier. This fact, taken together with his expressed hatred of the Turkish people, Arikan's status as an official representative of the Republic of Turkey and, most importantly, a jailhouse confession by the defendant as to the motive, method and planning of the murder, served as the evidentiary basis for the jury's true finding on the special circumstance of "national origin."

A. Summary of the People's Case
1. The Eyewitness Testimony

(a) Genie Goetz testified that at approximately 9:20 a.m. on Thursday, January 28, 1982, she was on her way to a class at U.C.L.A. and, driving north on Comstock, had stopped for the red light at the intersection with Wilshire. While waiting for the light to change so that she could proceed, she noticed a man she later identified as the defendant standing on the southeast corner of Wilshire and Comstock and another man standing on the opposite corner (i.e., the southwest corner of that intersection). In her testimony, she described their behavior as somewhat strange and that they were both standing very close to the street. In spite of the fact that they had a green light, they were making no attempt to cross the street but simply staring at each other (although the man on the west side of the intersection was also looking frequently up towards the nearby Beverly Comstock Hotel). She continued to observe the two men until the light for north-south traffic on Comstock changed. She then proceeded on across Wilshire to attend her class at U.C.L.A. It was not until about 2 p.m. that afternoon that she heard anything about a "shooting" which had taken place at Wilshire and Comstock. That evening at approximately 9 o'clock, she telephoned the Los Angeles Police Department and informed them of what she had seen. Subsequently, on February 1, 1982, she was taken to a lineup at which time she picked out the defendant from a group of seven persons who had been made available for various eyewitness identification. She also identified the defendant at the preliminary hearing and at trial. In addition, she identified a blue vest (People's exh. 37) as an article of clothing which the defendant had been wearing at the time she saw him. This was an item of clothing retrieved by the police from the defendant's brother.

(b) James Jeffs testified that he left his apartment on Ashton Avenue at about 9:47 a.m., drove east on Ashton and then turned left and went north on Comstock towards the intersection with Wilshire. He stated that he stopped for the stop sign at the corner of Ashton and Comstock. It was at that time that he heard six shots, or what he thought were gunshots. He then saw two men running south on Comstock. One of them, wearing a blue vest or waist-length coat, was carrying a handgun in his left hand. Mr. Jeffs subsequently identified this man as the defendant. On February 1, 1982, he was taken to a lineup of six individuals. At that lineup he indicated that he "believed" that the defendant (No. 4 in the lineup) was the man he had seen running on January 28, wearing the blue vest and carrying a handgun in his left hand. On the same date, he made a second identification of the defendant out of a photo lineup and later identified the defendant at the preliminary hearing. He made a final identification of the defendant at the trial. When asked what he meant when he said (at the original lineup) he "believed" that the defendant was the man he had seen, he described his certainty as a "high probability" and indicated that it could be quantified as a 70 to 80 percent probability.

(c) Dawn Stensrud was driving westbound on Wilshire and had stopped for the red light at the intersection with Comstock. While she was stopped, she heard a sound that "sounded like a pack of firecrackers going off." The sound was off to her left and she looked in that direction and saw a white Ford or Lincoln on Comstock heading north on the south side of Wilshire. The vehicle was stopped and there was a man on each side of the car. Just as her attention was directed to the car by the "firecracker" noise, she saw the man on the passenger side of the car start to run and go behind the car as the man on the driver's side turned. They met at the rear of the car and went south on Comstock. She then saw the white car slowly cross Wilshire, collide with a small red car and then crash into a tree. Photographs introduced at the trial depicted the bullet-riddled body of the victim Arikan slumped in the front seat of the white car as it rested against the tree. Just as the two men had started to run from the white car, she noticed the one on the driver's side putting something in his waistband. She was unable to identify what it was. She later identified the defendant as the man she saw on the passenger side of the car. 4

A fourth eyewitness, Wells Wohlwend, an attorney, testified that he had been driving his car south on Comstock on the north side of Wilshire, intending to cross Wilshire. It was just before 10 a.m. and, as he came to the intersection, he heard what he characterized as "cracking noises." At first, he did not think they were anything other than some construction noises. However, as he crossed Wilshire, he saw two young men running very quickly. They were crossing from the east side of Comstock just south of Wilshire in a diagonal direction over towards the west side of Comstock and were running along the sidewalk. It struck him as very unusual and he followed in his automobile. He states that he got as close as 20 feet behind them. He described the two men as of medium height, dark hair, olive complected with "very athletic capability" because they were running very fast. He saw the two men run south on Comstock and then turn and run west on Ashton Avenue. He observed them bending over a hedge area in front of a house and saw one of them kick at something in the hedge. He passed them, pulled into an alley area and continued to watch them. He observed them leave the hedge and go to a parked automobile. Mr. Wohlwend said that he then backed his car out of the alley and began heading east down Ashton towards the two men who, by this time, had entered their car and were driving towards him. He made no attempt to look at the faces of the men as they passed, but was intent on getting some sort of identification of the car. He noticed that there was no front license plate on the vehicle 5 but that there was a license plate on the back. He observed that license number and later wrote it down on a piece of paper. It was California license...

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