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‘Onion Field’ Killer Turns to U.S. for Help : Crime: Gregory Powell asks a federal court to release him from prison. His lawyer argues that state judges are under political pressure to keep him locked up.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gregory Ulas Powell, serving a life sentence for the 1963 murder of a Los Angeles police officer in a case made famous by the Joseph Wambaugh book and movie “The Onion Field,” is asking the federal courts to free him.

Powell’s case has been bouncing around the state courts for more than 25 years. But this is the first time he has turned to the federal courts in his attempt to win a release.

In a writ of habeas corpus filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Powell’s lawyer, Dennis P. Riordan, argued that Powell’s act of murder was “no more or less repugnant than those of hundreds of other prisoners convicted of murder and subsequently paroled” in the past 30 years.

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But Riordan said extraordinary “political pressures” visited upon state judges and parole authorities prompted them to bar Powell’s release.

“There are cases, perhaps few in number and extraordinary in nature, that are simply too politically hot for elected state court judges to handle in the fashion the Constitution requires. This is one such case,” Powell’s writ said.

Riordan said in an interview that Powell’s case will turn on “whether the federal courts will prove more immune to political pressure than state courts. If it is looked at dispassionately, we will win at a minimum a new rescission hearing.”

Powell, 57, originally was sentenced to death for the murder of Los Angeles Police Officer Ian J. Campbell in an onion field in Kern County on March, 9, 1963.

But his sentence was reduced to life in prison in 1972 after the California Supreme Court held that the death penalty law then in effect was unconstitutional. He has been been fighting for his release ever since.

State parole authorities found him to be suitable for parole in 1977, and scheduled his release for 1982. The case attracted wide attention when Wambaugh detailed the coldblooded nature of the crime and its aftermath in the best-selling book “The Onion Field.”

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In February, 1982, soon after a movie version of the book aired on national television, the Board of Prison Terms rescinded Powell’s release date and found him unsuitable for parole. The board had received petitions with 30,000 signatures opposing his release.

In one of the final decisions issued under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, the California Supreme Court overturned that decision in 1986, opening the way for Powell’s release.

Once Bird and two other liberal justices were ousted, the court’s new conservative majority, led by Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, reconsidered the case. The court upheld the board’s decision in 1988.

Powell’s partner in the crime, Jimmy Lee Smith, served 19 years for the killing. He has been in and out of prison for parole and other violations. He received a six-month sentence last year for being under the influence of heroin.

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