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Whitworth Trial Delayed While Appeals Court Mulls Judge’s Ruling

Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court Friday halted the espionage trial of Jerry A. Whitworth until July 7 to give the government time to challenge a ruling by the trial judge that prosecutors believe widens the prospects of Whitworth’s acquittal on spy charges.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily stopped the trial to hear the government’s challenge of an order by U.S. District Judge John P. Vukasin that prosecutors must prove that Whitworth knew that he was spying for the Soviet Union.

The order, issued within two hours of the government’s filing the emergency appeal, delays Monday’s scheduled start of closing arguments by one week to give the appeals court time to rule.

Victory for Defense Lawyers

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Vukasin’s ruling was an important victory for defense lawyers who say Whitworth believed that the highly classified naval documents that he is accused of stealing went to friendly nations or private intelligence agencies. They argue that he must be acquitted of spying if jurors do not believe that he knew he was spying for the Soviets.

Assistant U.S. Atty. William (Buck) Farmer said the ruling creates “a significantly greater chance of acquittal” because jurors must determine Whitworth’s state of mind--"a very subjective factor.” Farmer had argued that the law merely required proof that Whitworth knew that he was spying for a foreign country--even though the indictment specifies that he was a Soviet spy.

But Vukasin remained firm Friday, saying, “After an indictment has been returned, its charges may not be broadened or amended.”

Although the indictment accused Whitworth of spying for the Soviets, there was no testimony conclusively proving it.

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Dealt With Soviets

The main witness against Whitworth, confessed spy John A. Walker Jr., testified that while he dealt strictly with the Soviets and recruited Whitworth into his spy ring, he never told Whitworth who bought the stolen military documents.

Other evidence suggested that Whitworth may have known that the buyer was the Soviet Union. Walker, for example, testified that Whitworth persistently asked him to find out how other Soviet spies had been discovered.

Walker also said “common sense” would suggest to a naval communications expert like Whitworth that only the Soviet Union would be able to decipher the sophisticated coding information that Whitworth allegedly stole.

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