Obituary: Judge John Sirica

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE of the strangest mornings I ever spent was when I dropped in on Judge John Sirica's Federal Court in Washington during the Watergate trial, writes Leonard Miall (further to the obituary by Phillip Frazer, 20 August). There was complete silence in the courtroom. Judge Sirica, the lawyers, the members of the jury and the large press corps were all wearing very efficient outsize headphones.

These were necessary for us to listen to the tapes on which the conversations in the Oval Office of the White House had been recorded. Every now and then a lawyer would jump up and say, 'Your Honour, exhibit number so-and- so' and a new tape would be played. We had to strain to catch the very indistinct words that hidden microphones had recorded under far from ideal conditions.

Judge Sirica himself, the jury and the court officials had all been issued with transcripts, without which it was virtually impossible to understand what was streaming out of those padded headphones for hour after hour. The press had to buy copies of the transcripts at dollars 60 a set. The only people without access to them were those occupying the seats in the public gallery.

When I arrived the tape was replaying a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff Bob Haldeman. The previous day the President had had a tense interview with his young counsel at the White House, John Dean, who had threatened to squeal. Nixon was very worried about what had transpired during that interview, and had asked Haldeman to go and listen to the tapes.

Haldeman duly monitored the recording, and took notes. And what we were then hearing was his subsequent report to the President. It consisted of such statements as 'Well, Mr President, Dean said such-and-such, and then you asked him this and then Dean said so-and-so . . .' When Haldeman had concluded his recital Nixon was clearly badly worried, and the two of them began to cook up what they might say if Dean did in fact disclose his foreknowledge of the Watergate burglary.

Haldeman sought to provide reassurance. 'After all, Mr President, if it comes to a crunch it is simply Dean's word against the word of the President of the United States.' At that point Nixon, sounding most anxious, suddenly said, 'You don't think the sonofabitch could have had a secret recorder on him, do you?' This remark caused a gale of laughter in the courtroom, except for those in the public gallery who, without transcripts, had not understood what Nixon had said.

Sirica immediately ordered a recess. No sooner had the jury filed out for a coffee break than Haldeman's lawyer, a smart man called Wilson, was on his feet calling for the trial to be terminated. The press had tried to influence the jury by laughing. The members of the public had behaved properly, he went on, but the people in the press gallery, led by so- and-so of the Baltimore Sun, had attempted to prejudice a fair trial of his client, and it should be stopped forthwith.

It was a good try, but Sirica was having none of it. He subsequently sentenced Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman and various others to terms in prison. Their chief was never tried.