Armenian genocide: How Valley prosecutor missed his chance to be ‘immortal symbol of justice’

Attorney James Lindsay, defendant Gourgen Yanikian, District Attorney David Minier, attorney Vasken Minasian in 1972

Twice each year, my thoughts turn to the Armenian Genocide. On April 24, the anniversary date of the 1915 massacres orchestrated by the Turkish government. And on Jan. 27, when 45 years ago Gourgen Yanikian assassinated two Turkish diplomats in Santa Barbara to avenge the genocide.

David Minier
The aging Armenian had lured the diplomats to a cottage at Santa Barbara’s exclusive Biltmore Hotel, promising gifts of art treasures for their government. Instead, he pulled a Luger pistol from a hollowed out book and emptied it at them. He then called the reception desk, announced he had killed “two evils,” and sat calmly on the patio awaiting arrest. 

Yanikian’s purpose was to create an “Armenian Nuremberg” – a show trial to call world attention to the genocide, as the Nuremberg trial had done with Nazi war crimes. And perhaps to be acquitted. Yanikian’s hope was not unreasonable.

In 1921, a German jury had acquitted Soghoman Tehlirian of murdering Talaat Pasha, the Turkish official most responsible for the genocide. Tehlirian later settled in Fresno, and his tomb is the centerpiece of Fresno’s Masis Ararat Cemetery.

Talaat had been sentenced in absentia to death for “crimes against humanity,” and had fled to Germany. Tehlirian found Talaat and shot him to death on a Berlin street. As planned, Tehlirian pled not guilty, and his trial was reported worldwide.

‘They Simply Had to Let Him Go’

Tehlirian testified about the rape and murder of his sisters, the beheading of his mother, and the killings of his brothers. It took a jury less than two hours to find Tehlirian not guilty. The New York Times headline read, “They Simply Had To Let Him Go.”

Fifty-two years later, in a Santa Barbara courtroom, Yanikian sought his “Armenian Nuremberg,” and an acquittal. As prosecutor, it was my duty to convict him.

The trial proceeded without personal rancor. I have a photograph of Yanikian, his attorneys and me, standing together, smiling, during a court recess. And another, with the inscription “to our admired and respected District Attorney and friend.”

Yanikian’s attorneys told the judge they wanted to call as witnesses eminent historians and elderly Armenians who had survived the genocide. And survivors were available. Bused daily from Southern California, they sat silently in the courtroom among family members, ready to recount unspeakable horrors.

One of Yanikian’s attorneys, Vasken Minasian, asked me to allow the testimony. He gave me a copy of “The Cross and the Crescent,” about the Tehlirian trial. In it he wrote: “The tragedy in Santa Barbara has brought destiny and God to your doorstep,” and he urged me to “bring forth an indictment against genocide.” He added, “You stand to become an immortal symbol of justice around the world.”

This was heady stuff, and I faced a dilemma: to allow a parade of eye-witnesses to the genocide, risking an acquittal, or to block the evidence to obtain a conviction. I knew such evidence would likely lead to “jury nullification,” where a jury disregards the law and acquits for a perceived greater justice, as the Tehlirian jury had done.

I took the safer path, and the judge sustained my objection to the witnesses. But I could not in good conscience block the testimony of Yanikian himself, no matter how it inflamed the jury. He commanded the witness stand for six days and described in detail, without objection, the Armenian genocide.

Turks slaughter 27 family members

Yanikian told how, as a boy of 8, he watched marauding Turks slit his brother’s throat, and of the slaughter of 26 other family members. He testified in Armenian, translated by Aram Saroyan, former Fresno grape shipper, San Francisco attorney, and uncle of author William Saroyan.

Jurors were moved to tears by Yanikian’s testimony, but they were denied the corroborating testimony the defense hoped would sway their decision. The Yanikian jury, unlike the Tehlirian jury, followed the law and gave me what I asked: two first-degree murder verdicts.

There would be no nullification. Yanikian was sentenced to life in prison. He was granted compassionate release to a care home in 1984, over objection of the Turkish government, and died of cancer two months later.

Yanikian failed to get his Armenian Nuremberg, and “The Forgotten Genocide,” denied to this day by the Turkish government, was never proved in a court of law by the testimony of eyewitness survivors.

Looking back, I regret I hadn’t the courage to allow such evidence, and trust the jury to follow the law. And attorney Minasian’s words still haunt me: “… bring forth an indictment against genocide.” History’s darkest chapters – its genocides – should be fully exposed, so their horrors are less likely to be repeated.

Notwithstanding Turkish denials, the historical evidence of the Armenian genocide is so abundant that 48 American states, and at least 25 nations, have memorialized and condemned it.

Valadao pushes resolution on genocide

Not so the American government. For years, Congressional Resolutions condemning the genocide have been defeated after intense pressure from Turkey, where American military bases exist at Turkish pleasure.

Passage of the current version, House Resolution 220, “would be a critical step towards ensuring an event like the Armenian genocide never takes place again,” says Hanford Congressman David Valadao, a co-sponsor.

But H.R. 220 has languished in the Foreign Affairs Committee for 10 months, and chances for passage are remote. The House will doubtless take the safer path, as I did in the Yanikian trial.

And once again, truth will fall victim to expedience.


David Minier of Fresno is a former district attorney of both Madera and Santa Barbara counties, and a retired Superior Court judge who sits frequently by assignment in Valley courtrooms.

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  1. The “Armenian genocide” began just a few months after the Dardanelles campaign. Turkey had a mutual defense treaty with the Central Powers, then at war with England. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill decided that opening a second front in the east might undo Germany’s advances in the west.

    Accordingly Britain launched an amphibious invasion against Turkey, which had done it no injury. For the first time since the Crusades, a mighty Christian army launched an unprovoked attack on a strong Moslem nation. The Ottomans repelled the ill-planned invasion, but the emerging new nationalist leadership decided it was no longer safe to tolerate a sizeable Christian minority in Turkey. The province of Armenia was ancient Cilicia, the home of Paul the Apostle. It still harbored a large Christian population, who the Turks assumed would side with the western invaders.

    At the same time the Armenian massacres were taking place, the Czar’s troops, in full retreat before the German advance deep into Russia, were systematically butchering all non-Russian ethnic minorities they encountered, lest they remain to become collaborators with the German occupiers.

    It is easy for us, safe and well fed in our comfortable homes, to condemn such acts, but for a people suddenly thrust into a life and death struggle with the world’s most aggressive empires, what had to be done for national survival looked far different.

  2. David Minier: extending the logic that you are propagating, Pakistanis and Indians descended from the populations that cross-migrated, following massacres in their homelands, have every right to murder each other wherever they get the opportunity in the USA? As should the Tutsis on Hutus, Bosnians on Serbs, Palestinians on Jews? Having had an illustrious career as a judge and a prosecuting attorney, you know far better than all of us that your idea cannot be construed as an incitement to violence.

    Do enlighten us a bit more, dear Judge. Can the Apache, Sioux and other native people use your proposed logic to hunt down the descendants of the butchers of their people and kill them? Even better, will you endorse the descendants of those that suffered at the hands of the carpetbaggers, kill their descendants?

  3. Thew Armenians chose to collaborate with the Imperial Russian Army on the Russo-Turkish Front in the Caucasus. They did their share of massacres, playing the role of saboteurs and causing internal strife. The blowback was terrible, it reflects what they did in the first place.

  4. Thanks to whomever posted this great article. While I have been aware of the Armenian Holocaust for many years, I was not aware of all the machinations by the Turks, U.S. cowards, Israeli so and so’s, and all the others who have obstructed the acknowledgement of this holocaust of 1.5 million members of the fabulous Armenian race. This gross hypocrisy shows the depth of depravity of the totally obscene government of the United States. Our country has no conscience no morals no backbone no nothing, nothing but total gutless worthless cowards running this country for over a century now. Shame, shame, shame on them a thousand a million times. We could justify more respect for Al Capone and the worst Mafia criminals than the worthless pieces of human garbage running our government, all of them, pieces of cowardly expletives deleted. When he was stuck at the LA Airport Ken O’Keefe used the correct language to describe these whores elected by American idiots and fools for over 100 years! America deserves its impending plight into oblivion. If there is a higher being somewhere in this universe the time to deal with these worthless pieces of human garbage is long overdue. We are eagerly awaiting your response. We need to metaphorically spit in the faces of every coward in Congress and every president since 1915.

    • Former U.S. Marine Ken O’Keefe stuck at LAX February 17, 2016:

      The cowardly four star traitor generals who sold out America on 9/1101 could learn something by watching this video every day. By the way Israel did 9/11/01 to the U.S.:
      • “Larry Silverstein – is a Jewish American businessman from New York. Silverstein obtained a 99 year lease on the entire world trade center complex on 24 July, 2001. [3] The towers were in fact close to worthless, being filled with asbestos, [4] yet Silverstein “felt a compelling urge to own them”. Silverstein had breakfast in “Windows on the World” restaurant (located in North Tower 107th Floor) every morning. [5] but broke this routine on the morning of 11 September 2001. Silverstein’s two children, who also worked in the WTC, were also absent from work that day. Larry Silverstein was paid a little over $4.5 Billion in insurance money as a result of the destruction of the WTC complex. [6] Silverstein was on personal friendship terms with Zionist media-magnate Rupert Murdoch, former Israeli president Ariel Sharon, as well as Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Silverstein was such good friends with Netanyahu that, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz he would speak with him on the phone every sunday. [7]
      • Video – Where was Larry Silverstein on 9/11?”

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