Ten months after actor Carroll O'Connor passionately vowed to see justice done, the first witnesses were heard Wednesday in the drug trial of the man O'Connor blames for the suicide of his only son.
Harry Perzigian, accused of selling drugs to the late Hugh O'Connor, was called "Dirty Harry" by one witness in Santa Monica Superior Court and described by several others as the resident of a condominium building where they frequently drove the actor's son to buy cocaine.
The testimony by the friends and relatives of Hugh O'Connor filled in the details of the tormented, drug-addicted life of a 32-year-old man who tried several times to kick his cocaine habit, only to return again and again to the Brentwood condominium where drugs allegedly were being sold.
The veteran actor and his wife watched the trial for half the day. Being there, O'Connor explained, was something he did to fulfill his televised promise to see Perzigian prosecuted. "I'd like other people who know these kind of reptiles on the street to tell the police about them," O'Connor told reporters early in the day. "And don't be so sure you won't get satisfaction."
Perzigian's trial for possession of cocaine and furnishing cocaine is expected to conclude today. If convicted of both charges, he could serve up to one year in county jail.
His lawyer has argued that Perzigian, 40, had cocaine in his condominium when police raided it the day after the suicide but that the drug was only for his own use. Attorney Bradley W. Brunon said Perzigian was being charged with the additional count of furnishing the drug to O'Connor as part of a "celebrity prosecution."
"I have never seen this much effort over what is essentially a half-gram possession case," Brunon said. "The only difference between this case and other cases is that you had a very famous man going on TV making a lot of noise."
O'Connor's friends and acquaintances, however, testified to frequent visits to the Perzigian condominium building.
First on the stand was Kevin McConnell, a thin, bespectacled friend of Hugh O'Connor's, and, like him, a car buff. McConnell, 31, said he had been to the Brentwood building about 15 times over six years. He always drove and waited outside, often while O'Connor ran in with cash he had just obtained from an automated teller machine. When he returned to the car once about a year ago, O'Connor jammed a key in a paper bindle and took two quick snorts of a white powder, McConnell testified.
Under questioning by Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Barshop, McConnell conceded that he never went upstairs or saw Perzigian. He also admitted on cross-examination that he did not initially mention to a detective that he saw O'Connor bring cocaine back to the car.
O'Connor's cousin Matthew and a friend, Hadwig Schneck, said they had made similar trips to the Brentwood condominium with Hugh O'Connor. On another occasion, less than a week before the suicide, the cousin said Perzigian came to Hugh O'Connor's home and he heard the men talking in the kitchen about large sums of cash--"$1,880" and "$2,000" and Perzigian insisting, "Hugh, you know I can't float you any longer."
In his cross-examination of all the witnesses, Brunon tried to suggest that they had been influenced to testify by a private investigator hired by the actor, or that they were trying to please Carroll O'Connor by helping to convict Perzigian. The witnesses said they had little or no contact, though, with the investigator, Don Crutchfield.
A final witness who said he purchased drugs from Perzigian was less assured on the stand. Jerald Martinez(, a musician from Sacramento, said he bought drugs from Perzigian five times. Martinez claimed he first met Perzigian at a Hollywood nightclub, where they were introduced by Shannon Hoon, the lead singer of the rock group Blind Melon, who has since died of a heroin overdose.
Martinez was unable, however, to recall details of his alleged transactions with Perzigian, and the defense quickly excused him after a few caustic questions. Perzigian shook his head at the end of the court day and said: "He conveniently pulls a dead rock star out as our supposed connection."
Barshop attempted to cement Perzigian's identity as more than just a casual cocaine user through the testimony of Los Angeles Police Det. Steven Galeria. The detective said he found a host of objects in Perzigian's home commonly used by drug dealers--a scale, sifters, chemicals used to cut cocaine--and more than $1,700 in cash. He later obtained two dozen canceled checks--written by O'Connor to Perzigian for a total of $4,800.
But Brunon suggested that those same items could be used for benign purposes. He noted that one of the checks was marked for "stereo equipment" and another for "a lousy bet." As for the cash, it was kept on hand for an earthquake or other emergency, Perzigian had told police from the start. Galeria also conceded that other paraphernalia associated with dealers--ledger sheets and baggies--were not found.
The defense is expected to call just two witnesses today. Brunon declined to say whether Perzigian will testify.
Then the case will be in the hands of Judge Richard Neidorf. Perzigian waived his right to a jury trial.