Onion Field Murder Trials: 1963-69
Onion Field Murder Trials: 1963-69
Defendants: Gregory Ulas Powell, Jimmy Lee Smith
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: John Moore, Kathryn McDonald, Ray Smith, Gregory Powell, Irving Kanarek, Charles Maple, William A. Drake, Charles Hollopeter
Chief Prosecutors: Marshall Schulman, Philip Halpin, Joseph Busch, Raymond Byrne, Sheldon Brown, Dino Fulgoni
Judges: Twelve judges, the most important being Mark Brandler, Alfred Peracca, Arthur Alarcon, Thomas LeSage, Harold Sheperd
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trials: First trial: July 15-September 12, 1963; new trial hearing: October 31-November 13, 1963; second trial: April 1-November 6, 1969
Sentences: Death for both in first trial; life imprisonment for Smith, death for Powell in the second. But Powell's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in March 1972, when the California Supreme Court decided that death was cruel and unusual punishment.
SIGNIFICANCE: In March 1963, two small-time thieves kidnapped two Los Angeles police officers. They murdered one, but the other escaped. The killers were quickly captured and were convicted of murder. With appeals, interminable pretrial motions, and new trials, however, the case dragged on for another six years. Smith's original death sentence was changed to life imprisonment. Powell's death sentence was found unconstitutional in 1972 and changed to life in prison. The case outraged a Los Angeles police officer, Joseph Wambaugh, who wrote a best-selling book about it, The Onion Field. The book was a major factor in the restoration of the death penalty in most of the United States.
On March 9, 1963, two Los Angeles plainclothesmen, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, approached a car with a pair of suspicious-looking men in it. The men were Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith, two stick-up men preparing to commit a robbery. The crooks surprised the officers by drawing guns, disarming them, and taking them out of the city. They drove them to an onion farm about 90 miles north of Los Angeles. They shot Campbell, but Hettinger ran and reached the safety of a farm house.
The crooks split up to pursue Hettinger. Smith, driving the car, left his partner and fled. Powell stole a farmer's car but was arrested by two cops who identified the vehicle as stolen. He confessed to the murder and told them Smith was his accomplice.
Hettinger returned to duty. But because he had given up his gun to save his partner, his superiors in the LAPD considered him a coward—treatment that enraged his colleague, Joseph Wambaugh, as much as the fate of the two murderers.
Start of a Legal Marathon
Murder trials in California are bifurcated. The first part focuses, on the guilt of the defendants and the second, on the sentence. After being found guilty, Powell fired his attorneys, John Moore and Kathryn McDonald, and conducted his own defense in the sentence hearing. But, like Smith, he was sentenced to death. He immediately filed an appeal. Jimmy Smith fired his attorney, Ray Smith, and hired a new lawyer, Irving Kanarek. Kanarek had defended Charles Manson, the mass murderer. Kanarek, too, moved for a new trial. When the hearing for a new trial began, Kanarek wasted many days trying to prove that a juror in the first trial—a woman who was obviously insane—had been unjustly replaced because she favored the defense. He followed that with numerous irrelevant motions that moved the prosecutor, Marshall Schulman, to beg the judge to hold Kanarek in contempt. Judge Mark Brandler would not do that, but on November 13, he again sentenced Powell and Smith to death.
But there was another trial, decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court were the cause. In 1964, the Court found in favor of Danny Escobedo, who confessed to a murder after he had asked for, and not received, advice from a lawyer. The next year, the California Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Robert Dorado because the police had not warned him that he had the right to remain silent and be represented by counsel. And the year after that, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Ernesto Miranda, made such a warning mandatory in all cases. Smith and Powell again appealed. While the appeal was pending, Powell tried to escape, but was captured before he could get over the wall.
The escape attempt did not matter. The California Supreme Court ordered a new trial for both defendants on the grounds that they had not been advised of their rights.
Once again, Irving Kanarek represented Jimmy Smith. Public defender Charles Maple represented Gregory Powell. A new prosecutor, Philip Halpin, presented the state's case, and a new judge, Alfred Peracca, presided. The defense, particularly Kanarek, turned this trial into even more of a circus than the preceding trial. Kanarek, during his marathon of pretrial motions, falsely accused Halpin of intending to assault him and then of carrying a gun into the courtroom, meanwhile interrupting the judge and ignoring objections. While this was going on, Powell and Smith made another escape attempt. Judge Peracca had to be removed from the case after he had a heart attack.
Peracca's replacement, Arthur Alarcon, finally removed Kanarek from the case for incompetence, replacing him with William A. Drake. Three months later, the California Supreme Court reversed Alarcon's decision. Kanarek came back. Judge Alarcon left the case.
No judge in Los Angeles wanted to touch the case. Thomas LeSage, a brand-new judge, was assigned to it. When he asked if there were any pretrial motions, Kanarek launched his patented barrage of irrelevancies. It culminated when he accused Halpin of mouthing an obscenity. The prosecutor's patience broke. He grabbed Kanarek by the shirt and screamed, "I will not permit this man to say that about me!" Kanarek demanded that the prosecutor be arrested for assault.
Halpin was removed from the case. So was—finally—Irving Kanarek. Kanarek's dismissal came after a motion by Jimmy Smith to fire his lawyer. Smith became so hostile to his defense attorney that he shoved Kanarek away from him and threw a chair at him. A Pasadena attorney named Charles Hollopeter was assigned to advise Smith. Kanarek maintained that his client was unable to think clearly. He further argued that the judge had no right to ask Jimmy Smith about his choice of lawyers. He charged that the judge was proceeding illegally. The judge, however, ruled that the hostility between Smith and his lawyer prevented the defendant from having the representation by counsel required by law. He relieved Kanarek of his duties. That ruling was final. The next day, he ordered separate trials for the two defendants.
With Kanarek gone, jury selection for the Gregory Powell trial was able to proceed. This time, the confessions and all incriminating statements by the defendants were inadmissible. To a large extent, the case depended on Karl Hettinger, the policeman who had escaped. Hettinger, however, was not the man he was six years before. Practically accused of cowardice, he had been taken off patrol and assigned to drive the chief of police. Colleagues shunned him. Mental and emotional troubles mounted. He had become a kleptomaniac and had been dismissed from the force. By the time he was called as a witness, his memory of events on the night of the shooting was blurred. Prosecutors Joseph Busch and Raymond Byrne were able, however, to present enough evidence to get a guilty verdict. In the penalty hearing, prosecutor Sheldon Brown convinced the jury to prescribe the death sentence. During the trial, Powell tried to escape again, and at one time attacked a spectator while leaving the courtroom.
In his new trial, Jimmy Smith was defended by Charles Hollopeter, while Dino Fulgoni represented the state. After a short time it appeared that Smith didn't like Hollopeter much better than he liked Kanarek. Although Smith, as well as Powell, had actually fired bullets into Campbell, his defense was that he had nothing to do with the shooting. Hollopeter bolstered this defense by calling Powell as a witness. Powell answered almost all questions by invoking the Fifth Amendment. But Powell was a "scary dude." Jurors treated to his malevolent glare were convinced that he was the evil leader of the Powell-Smith partner-ship. The jurors found Smith guilty but voted for life imprisonment on November 6, 1969. On December 3, 1969, the twelfth judge to be involved with the "Onion Field" case sentenced Gregory Powell to death. But the case wasn't over yet.
Death Penalty Decision
In March 1972, seven years after the murder, the California Supreme Court, considering the trial of Robert P. Anderson, ruled that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment. All death sentences were automatically commuted.
The next year, Joseph Wambaugh, a Los Angeles detective sergeant who had published two previous police procedural novels, wrote another book. That book, The Onion Field, was what author Truman Capote called a "non-fiction novel." It was a powerful indictment of both the judicial system and the LAPD hierarchy. It became a best-seller and a major factor in the trend toward reinstating the death penalty in the United States.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Wambaugh, Joseph. The Onion Field. New York: Delacorte Press, 1973.