The case of Hampig Sassounian has been a cause celebre within the local Armenian community for nearly 30 years. In 1982, Sassounian and an accomplice assassinated the Turkish consul general, in an act of revenge for the Armenian genocide.
Sassounian was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. But ever since, a dedicated group of Armenian activists has been campaigning for his release.
Those activists have now turned their attention to the race for L.A. County district attorney. The D.A. has opposed Sassounian's requests for parole in the past.
But in endorsement interviews with the Armenian National Committee last week, the L.A. Weekly has learned, three D.A. candidates were asked to take a neutral position when he comes up for parole again in 2013
According to the candidates, it's the only time that a particular case has been raised in an endorsement interview.
Each of the three campaigns tell the Weekly that they made no commitments on the Sassounian case.
“Carmen Trutanich is not going to prejudge any case before he gets to the D.A.'s office,” says spokesman Dave Jacobson. “He said he would be open to it. But he's not going to form some sort of judgment on the case without having all the details in front of him.”
“I listened to what they had to say,” says Chief Deputy Jackie Lacey, who was more familiar with the case. “I did not make any commitments one way or the other.”
“I indicated there was absolutely no way I would prejudge a case,” says prosecutor Alan Jackson. “I haven't read the file or had access to it or been associated with it.”
William Bairamian, the executive director of the ANC Western Region, declines to discuss the Sassounian case, or even confirm whether it came up in the endorsement interview.
“I'm not aware of what you're referring to,” Bairamian says. “Our endorsement process is not something I'm going to comment on.”
The candidates say that the ANC representatives made it clear the case was very important to the group. The ANC has yet to announce its endorsement in the race, and has not said whether it will make a selection before Tuesday's primary vote. The other candidates on the ballot — Danette Meyers, Bobby Grace, and John Breault — were not invited.
Sassounian admitted guilt and renounced terrorism and political assassinations as part of an agreement with the district attorney's office in 2002. Under that deal, Sassounian's sentence was converted from life without parole to 25 years to life, with the possibility of parole.
D.A. Steve Cooley has opposed parole at two previous hearings, in 2006 and 2010, and parole has been denied.
“This is a hate-based killing,” Cooley tells the Weekly. “We think killing people in a premeditated way based on their ethnicity is one of the worst things around.”
Armand Arabian, a retired California Supreme Court justice, spoke in favor of paroling Sassounian at the most recent hearing.
“I don't condone anybody shooting somebody else. He was a young person who was misguided. He's done a lot of years up there,” Arabian says.
Arabian is supporting Trutanich, but says he has never spoken about the case with him. Mark Geragos, who has long served as Sassounian's attorney, is also backing Trutanich.
“No one can tell the D.A. what position to take in advance,” Arabian says. “I wouldn't make this an issue, and I don't think it should be.”