On the eve of his third trial for spying, former FBI agent Richard W. Miller testified Tuesday during a pretrial hearing that he confessed to passing a secret bureau manual to the Soviet Union because he was trying hard to please the fellow agents who were interrogating him.
The five intense days of questioning in the fall of 1984--including talks with two FBI superiors who were members of the Mormon Church, as Miller was--confused issues in his mind and prompted him to confess when, in fact, he had not done anything wrong, he said.
"I want to be so honest that the statements I made were of benefit to the FBI . . . even to the side of error," Miller testified. "I had talked myself into believing that I had (passed secrets to the Soviets). I thought I was helping out my government."
Some eight months later, Miller said he realized, as he reviewed evidence in preparation for his first trial, that he was innocent.
"I've told the truth and I always have," he said. "I did not give anybody any documents."
Miller, 53, made his comments to support pretrial defense motions to throw out the 1984 confessions he made to FBI agents. His federal court trial begins today in Los Angeles.
But U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi, who will preside over the trial without a jury, ruled that the confessions can be admitted.
Miller's attorneys, Joel Levine and Stanley Greenberg, had contended that his confession-- that he passed the manual to former lover Svetlana Ogorodnikova in exchange for sex, money and an expensive trench coat--should be kept out of this trial because federal prosecutors in the past withheld certain evidence from the defense and U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon, who presided over the first two trials.
Levine and Greenberg, however, said they would still make prosecutorial misconduct part of their strategy.
An example of that alleged misconduct, they argued, was the prosecution's failure to disclose that at the time he was being grilled by interrogators, Miller, who had been excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for sexual impropriety, had sought the "blessing" of both Richard T. Bretzing, who was head of the FBI's Los Angeles office at the time, and Phillip Christenson, a ranking agent in the office. The defense lawyers argued that Miller's request should have been disclosed to the defense and to Kenyon during the earlier trials. This has added significance, they said, because Bretzing and Christenson were both bishops of the Mormon Church at the time, and that played a role in Miller confessing to passing the secret FBI handbook.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Adam Schiff, the current prosecutor, countered that recent decisions have allowed confessions to stand despite so-called "religious" issues. He argued that Miller had confessed without discussion from anyone about his religious life.
Christenson was brought into court Tuesday to testify about the incident, and confirmed that Miller, in the midst of tense interrogation by FBI agents, at one point asked for a blessing from him.
"There was a short pause and (Miller) said, 'No, that wouldn't be appropriate,' " Christenson testified.
Miller said he asked for the blessing in part because he looked upon Christenson and Bretzing as spiritual advisers.
Miller's first trial ended in a hung jury in November, 1985. The following year, a Los Angeles federal court jury convicted him, but the conviction was overturned by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in April, 1989.
He was released on bail last October after 5 1/2 years in prison and has been working as a private investigator in Manhattan Beach.
Miller has continued to maintain his innocence, admitting in the past that he had an affair with Ogorodnikova to infiltrate the Soviet KGB and to revive his declining career with the FBI.
At one point, his attorneys likened Miller to Ralph Kramden, the well intentioned but blundering bus driver portrayed by Jackie Gleason on the old "Honeymooners" TV show.
With opening statements scheduled to start today, Miller's third trial will be different from the first two in several aspects:
* In addition to a new judge, there is a new prosecuting team. Schiff is the new lead prosecutor. Former U.S. Atty. Robert Bonner, recently confirmed as the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Assistant U.S. Atty. Russell Haymen handled the first two trials.
* The case is being heard without a jury. On the advice of his lawyers, Miller reluctantly agreed to have Takasugi decided the case.
* The trial is expected to last about two months, much shorter than the six-month marathon trials before Kenyon.
* With Miller testifying on the pretrial motions, his lawyers said he may testify on his behalf in this trial. Miller did not take the witness stand in the first two.
BACKGROUND Richard W. Miller, 53, is the first FBI agent to be accused of spying for the Soviet Union. He was arrested in October, 1984, on suspicion of giving a secret FBI manual to Soviet emigre Svetlana Ogorodnikova during an adulterous affair he had with her that year. An FBI agent since 1964, his career had been on the decline before his arrest over job performance and weight problems.