2 minute read

Onion Field Murder Trials: 1963-69

Start Of A Legal Marathon, Exit Kanarek, Death Penalty Decision

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
Verdicts: Guilty
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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972