Why Did the Superior Court Reject Governor’s denial of Sassounian’s Pardon
Last month, California Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan rejected Gov. Gavin Newsom’s refusal to accept the Parole Board’s decision to release Hampig Sassounian from jail. I was under the wrong impression that the Governor’s decision on pardons was final and not subject to a review or reversal by the courts. It turns out that the law requires the Governor to consider “all relevant, reliable information available” and his parole decisions must not be arbitrary or capricious. This article is based on a copy of the Judge’s 19-page ruling.
Hampig Sassounian, not related to this writer, was convicted on June 29, 1984 of first degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, but was resentenced to a term of 25 years to life in 2002, making him eligible for parole. Sassounian assassinated Turkish Consul General Kemal Arikan in Los Angeles on January 28, 1982 when he was 19 years old. He is now 58.
On December 27, 2019, the Board of Parole Hearings, found Sassounian suitable for release on parole. However, on May 25, 2020, Gov. Newsom rejected the Board’s decision based on the prisoner’s crime, “outsized political import,” and that his insight was “relatively new.”
On August 14, 2020, Sassounian filed a petition to the Superior Court challenging the Governor’s reversal of the Parole Board’s decision. He argued that the Governor’s decision is not supported by evidence that he posed an unreasonable danger to society, if released. Sassounian also contended that the “Governor imposed an unlawfully heightened standard of parole suitability illegally founded upon the circumstances of Sassounian’s life crime.” He contended that there is no evidence that he lacked “insight” and “the Governor’s conclusion that Sassounian has not demonstrated insight ‘for a sufficiently long period’ is an illegal reason to deny parole.”
On October 7, 2020, the court issued an Order to Show Cause. The Governor’s office filed its response on January 11, 2021, repeating the reasons why he refused parole for the prisoner. Sassounian then submitted his response on January 26, 2021 rejecting the Governor’s claims against him.
Judge Ryan ruled that Sassounian’s record does not contain any evidence to support the Governor’s contention that he is not suitable for release on parole. In addition, the Judge found that the Governor used an improper standard when considering both the “import” of Sassounian’s offense and the notoriety of his victim, as well as the recency of his insight. Therefore, the Judge ordered the release of Sassounian from jail.
Judge Ryan, in his verdict, mentioned Sassounian’s description of his background “as an Armenian born and raised until the age of 13 in Lebanon. During this time, they lived in an ‘active war zone and would routinely see dead bodies,’ including those of women and children. His father was an alcoholic who was often gone for weeks at a time, though Petitioner [Sassounian] had a good, loving relationship with his mother. He lived with his many siblings and extended family members, including his grandparents who were victims of the ‘Armenian Genocide.’ His grandmother often told Petitioner of how she lost her entire family to the genocide and that she only narrowly escaped death herself.”
The Judge continued: “At 13, his [Sassounian’s] family immigrated to the United States to escape the violence in Lebanon, but the family dynamic remained challenging. They moved to Pasadena where there was a large Armenian population. He joined the Armenian Boy Scouts and the Armenian Youth Federation. This is where he met his crime partner, Krikor ‘Koko’ Saliba. They became friendly a year or two before the crime and would discuss politics and the history between Armenia and Turkey, including the genocide. They also noted and discussed that there were ‘a lot of political assassinations going on’ at the time. That is, ‘Armenians were assassinating Turkish diplomats in Europe mostly because they were angry that … after the genocide Turkey would deny the genocide…. Young Armenians were upset about this and — they thought that — Turkey should step up and acknowledge the genocide…and get into dialogue with the Armenian people or make peace with them.’ Because this was not happening, ‘young Armenians decided to resort to violence….[They had] given up that… peaceful dialogue with Turkey was… going to happen.’ During this time Petitioner [Sassounian] and his crime partner, who was a few years older than Petitioner, discussed going to Europe to carry out an assassination like they had been seeing take place. At some point, Arikan, however, made a public address calling all Armenians ‘liars’ and declared there was no Armenian genocide. Saliba showed Petitioner an article regarding Arikan’s statement. ‘Being the grandsons of survivors of the Armenian genocide, we took that to be very insulting. And we took very deep offense about that.’”
Judge Ryan decided that “there is no evidence in the record to support the Governor’s finding of lack of insight, such the commitment offense of nearly 40 years is still probative of Petitioner’s current dangerousness.”
The Judge challenged the Governor’s contention that Sassounian’s insight into his crime was “very recent.” Judge Ryan stated that “the case law establishes there is no predetermined amount of time an inmate must demonstrate or possess insight such that it is sufficient for the purposes of suitability.” The Judge ruled that “the insight standard the Governor used to guide his decision was incorrect… and held Sassounian to a different ‘arbitrary’ standard.”
Regarding the issue of Sassounian being a danger to society, “the court notes that the psychologist found Petitioner to represent a low risk of violence upon release,” wrote the Judge. “Petitioner wrote a victim apology letter to Mr. Arikan’s family, friends, and colleagues, as well as one to the ‘Nation of Turkey, the Turkish government, and Turkish Communities of the World,’” stated Judge Ryan. “The court finds the Governor’s decision was both arbitrary and procedurally flawed,” ruled the Judge. He also noted that Sassounian “has comprehensive release plans for both the United States and Armenia.” This is in reference to Sassounian’s statement that he may relocate to Armenia after his release from prison.
At the end, the Judge pronounced that Sassounian “committed a murder for which he has been appropriately punished…. The Governor’s reversal is vacated, the Board’s grant of parole from December 27, 2019, is hereby reinstated. The Board is directed ‘to proceed in accordance with its usual procedures for release of an inmate on parole unless within 30 days of the finality of this decision the Board determines in good faith that cause for rescission of parole may exist and initiates appropriate proceedings to determine that question.’” Gov. Newsom decided not to appeal the Judge’s ruling, allowing the pardon go into effect which would set Sassounian free shortly.
In my opinion, violence is never justified regardless of the reason. Consul General Arikan was not guilty of committing genocide against the Armenian people. He was not even born during the genocide. Armenians have demands from the Government of Turkey, not individual Turks. Sassounian committed a crime for which he was punished by serving almost 40 years in jail. The complaints by the Turkish government about Sassounian’s release are not credible. The Turkish government pressured the Federal Government to urge Gov. Newsom in 2020 and previously Gov. Brown in 2017 to reject the Parole Board’s decisions to release Sassounian. Even less credible, not to say completely shameful, are the protests of the Azerbaijani government against Sassounian’s release. Azerbaijan awarded Azeri axe murderer Ramil Safarov the title of national hero for butchering an Armenian soldier while he was sleeping. Safarov served not a single day in jail in Azerbaijan after his extradition from Hungary.
Finally, it is completely unacceptable that the Turkish Government would demand excessive punishment for an Armenian who murdered a Turk, while Turkey itself continues to deny the mass murder of 1.5 million innocent Armenians. Only after the Turkish government acknowledges the Armenian Genocide and makes appropriate amends for it, Armenians can consider apologizing for the murder of a single Turk!