John J. Sirica

John J. Sirica

John Joseph Sirica, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on 19th March, 1904. He graduated from Georgetown University Law School in 1926. He engaged in private practice in the District of Columbia until August, 1930, when he was appointed assistant United States attorney for the District of Columbia. After resigning from this post in 1934 he resumed the practice of law.

A member of the American Bar Association, Sirica served as state chairman of the Junior Bar Association for the District of Columbia (1938-39). He was also a member of the Republican Party.

In 1944 Sirica served as general counsel to the House Select Committee to Investigate the Federal Communications Commission and between 1949 and 1957 was a member of the law firm of Hogan and Hartson.

In February, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower nominated Sirica as a judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. He became chief judge of the court in April, 1971. He soon gained the reputation as a maverick judge, and earned the nickname “Maximum John” for his sentencing policy. It was not unusual for his decisions to be overturned during appeal.

On 17th June, 1972, Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, Bernard L. Barker and James W. McCord were arrested placing electronic devices in the Democratic Party campaign offices in an apartment block called Watergate. The phone number of E. Howard Hunt was found in address books of the burglars. Reporters were now able to link the break-in to the White House. Bob Woodward, a reporter working for the Washington Post was told by a friend who was employed by the government, that senior aides of President Richard Nixon, had paid the burglars to obtain information about its political opponents. Soon afterwards, another White House aide, Gordon Liddy, was also arrested.

In 1973 Sirica presided over the Watergate trials. He did not believe the burglar's claim that they had acted alone and adopted the controversial tactic of questioning the witnesses himself. Frank Sturgis, E. Howard Hunt, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, Bernard L. Barker, Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord were eventually convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping.

On 19th March, 1973, James W. McCord wrote a letter to Sirica claiming that the defendants had pleaded guilty under pressure (from John Dean and John N. Mitchell) and that perjury had been committed. Sirica decided to publish the contents of this letter.

In 1979 Sirica published his own account of the Watergate Scandal: To Set the Record Straight: The Break-in, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon.

John Joseph Sirica died on 14th August, 1992.

Primary Sources

(1) John J. Sirica, To Set the Record Straight (1979)

When we resumed for the third week, Baldwin was back on the stand. One fact that interested me in his testimony was that at one point he had personally delivered transcripts of the bugged phone conversations to the headquarters of the Committee to Re-elect the President. He told the court that he could not remember to whom he had delivered the transcript, and that aroused my suspicions. I asked the jury to leave the courtroom and addressed Baldwin: ". . . You stated that you received a telephone call from Mr. McCord in Miami in which I think the substance of your testimony was that as to one particular log he wanted you to put that in a manila envelope and staple it, and he gave you the name of the party to whom the material was to be delivered, correct?"

"Yes, Your Honor," Baldwin answered.

"You wrote the name of that party, correct?"

"Yes, I did," he said.

"On the envelope. You personally took that envelope to the Committee to Re-elect the President, correct?"

"Yes, I did," Baldwin said.

"What is the name of that party?" I asked. "I do not know, Your Honor," Baldwin said.

"When did you have a lapse of memory as to the name of that party?"

Baldwin said he simply couldn't remember the name even though the FBI had given him several names to test his recollection. He said he handed the envelope to a guard.

"Here you are, a former FBI agent, you knew this log was very important?" I asked.

"That is correct," Baldwin said.

"You want the jury to believe that you gave it to a guard, is that your testimony?" I asked. Every time the path led to the CRP, something happened to memories. We took a recess.

(2) G. Gordon Liddy, Will (1980)

The proceedings were held in John Sirica's courtroom. I was charged with two counts of burglary, two of intercepting wire communications, one of intercepting oral communications, and the one all-important charge of "conspiracy." The latter meant little more than planning to do the former, but it is always included by prosecutors when possible to deprive the defendant of much of the protection against use of mere hearsay as evidence. I used to do the same thing.

John Sirica, then Chief Judge by virtue of seniority, had assigned the case to himself only the day before, and I wanted to get a look at him. The proceedings were over so quickly, however, that all I could tell was that he was short and squat with a tendency to play to the press.

My mother put up the required 10 percent of my $10,000 bail and after greeting my codefendants warmly, signing a few papers, and checking the reporting requirements with the probation office, I surrendered my official passport to the clerk of the court and went home. I recalled having read something about Sirica a few years before in Washingtonian magazine. It had long since been discarded but I found a copy of the September 1970 issue in the library.

In an article on the Washington judiciary, Harvey Katz had reported on Sirica's careless, slipshod performance on the bench. He gave the examples of cases where Sirica was reversed: "he is reversed for the most incredible reasons. In one case, he ordered the suit transferred to the federal district court in Minnesota without having first determined whether suit could have been brought there. I was in court when he considered a similar matter. The defendant was seeking a transfer of the case to Houston, claiming that most of the witnesses were there. Plaintiff contended that there were as many witnesses and documents in Washington and New Orleans, and that the case should remain here. "All right, all right," Sirica said. "The case is transferred to New Orleans." Both lawyers had to tell him that no one wanted the case tried there. "Well, Houston, then," Sirica said. "Or wherever."

"Boy," I said to Peter Maroulis, "we drew some judge - a bookthrower with the intellect of half a glass of water."

"Count your blessings," said Peter. I knew what he meant: the combination of Sirica's ill temper, little education, and carelessness increased the chances for reversible error considerably, and that was the only chance we had. It didn't really matter though; trial was set for 15 November, and that was after the election.

(3) E. Howard Hunt, Undercover: Memoirs of an American Secret Agent (1974)

On the 19th of June, 1972, Gordon Liddy told me that his superiors - the White House - had decided I should leave the country and join my vacationing wife and children in Europe until things settled down in Washington.

I was reluctant to follow such unexpected instructions, feeling I might be regarded as a fugitive even though no warrant had been issued for me (nor ever was). However I went home and began to pack, and soon afterward Liddy phoned me to rescind his previous orders. But shaken by the appearance of confusion and indecision among our sponsors, harassed by the press and lacking even basic legal guidance, I decided to fly to California and quietly await developments.

From there I placed frequent calls to Washington in order to obtain legal counsel. Douglas Caddy, my first--until then only - lawyer, was reluctant to speak with me, as was my employer Robert Bennett. Through press accounts I learned that Caddy had been summoned before a grand jury and then hauled before Judge John J. Sirica who ruled no attorney-client privilege existed between Caddy and myself. He ordered Caddy to answer the grand jury questions and subsequently thrust my attorney in jail.

Sirica’s savage handling of Caddy made me realize how desperately I needed expert legal counsel. Moreover, the cognomen ‘Maximum John’ had begun appearing in the press, and the combined implications were clear: if Sirica was treating Caddy - an Officer of the Court - so summarily, and Caddy was completely uninvolved in Watergate - then those of us who were involved could expect neither fairness nor understanding from him. As events unfolded, this conclusion became tragically accurate.

Among the many legal scholars who were later to criticize Judge Sirica’s conduct of the Watergate proceedings, Dean John Roche of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy had this to say: ‘… there is one sinister relic of that era: Watergate “justice.” one appalling aspect of Watergate was the extent to which liberals and civil libertarians deserted traditional principles of due process. The slogan was: “No due process for the bad guys: get the bastards!” What Sirica did was clearly cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Bill of Rights. He used the sentencing process as a medieval rack.’ And Douglas Caddy was his first victim.

(4) Joseph L. Rauh, The Washington Post (2nd June, 1973)

It seems ironic that those most opposed to Mr. Nixon’s lifetime espousal of ends justifying means should now make a hero of a judge who practiced this formula to the detriment of a fair trial for the Watergate Seven. Indeed, Sirica was quite frank about all this with statements during the trial such as ‘I could care less about what happens to this case on appeal…’ and ‘I could care less what the Court of Appeals does, if this case ever gets up there.

(5) Lawrence Meyer, Washington Post (31st January, 1973)

Two former officials of President Nixon's re-election committee, G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord, Jr. were convicted yesterday of conspiracy, burglary and bugging the Democratic Party's Watergate headquarters.

After 16 days of trial spanning 60 witnesses and more than 100 pieces of evidence, the jury found them guilty of all charges against them in just under 90 minutes.

Chief US District Judge John J. Sirica ordered Liddy, who was also a former White House aide, FBI agent and prosecutor, and McCord, a veteran of the CIA and FBI, jailed without bond. Sirica said he would hold a hearing on bail after defense lawyers file formal written motions.

Lawyers for both Liddy and McCord, said they would appeal the convictions, with McCords's layer attacking the conduct of Judge Sirica during the trial.

Five other men who were indicted with Liddy and McCord, including former White House aide and CIA Agent E. Howard Hunt, Jr. pleaded guilty early in the trial to all charges against them.

Liddy, 42, had maintained a calm, generally smiling exterior throughout the trial. He stood impassive, with is arms folded as deputy court clerk LeCount Patterson read the jury's verdict, repeating six times "guilty" for all eight counts against him.

McCord, 53, also showed no emotion as Patterson read the word "guilty" for all eight counts against him.

Liddy, former finance counsel for the Committee for the Reelection of the President, could receive a maximum sentence of 35 years. McCord, former security director for the committee, could receive a maximum sentence of 45 years. Sirica set no day for sentencing.

Before being jailed by deputy US marshals, Liddy embraced his lawyer, Peter L. Maroulis, patted him on the back, and in a gesture that became his trademark in the trail, gave one final wave to the spectators and press before he was led away.

Principal Assistant US Attorney Earl J. Silbert said, after the verdict was returned, that it was "fair and just."

In his final statement to the jury, Silbert told the eight women and four men that "when people cannot get together for political purposes without fear that their premises will be burglarized, their conversations bugged, their phones breed distrust, you breed suspicion, you lost confidence, faith and credibility."

Silbert asked the jury to "bring in a verdict that will help restore the faith in the democratic system that has been so damaged by the conduct of these two defendants and their coconspirators."

Despite repeated attempts by Judge Sirica to find out if anyone else besides the seven defendants was involved in the conspiracy, testimony in the trial was largely confined by the prosecution to proving its case against Liddy and McCord, with occasional mention made of the five who had pleaded guilty. The jury, which was sequestered throughout the trial, was never told of the guilty pleas.

When Hunt pleaded guilty Jan 11, Sirica questioned him in an attempt to find out if anyone besides the persons indicted was involved in the conspiracy.

Hunt's lawyer, William O. Bittman, blocked Sirica's questions, saying the prosecution had told him it intended to call Hunt and any other defendant who was convicted to testify before the grand jury.

An apparent purpose of renewed grand jury testimony would be to probed the involvement of others in the bugging. Asked yesterday what steps he now intended to take, Silbert said, "I don't think I'll comment on anything further."

According to testimony in the trial, Liddy was given about $332,000 in campaign funds purportedly to carry out a number of intelligence-gathering assignments given him by deputy campaign direction Jeb Stuart Magruder.

The prosecution said it could account for only about $50,000 of this money, and that it was used to finance the spying operation against the Democratic Party.

In his argument to the jury, Silbert called Liddy the "mastermind, the boss, the money-man" of the operation.

Maroulis, defending Liddy, attempted to put the blame on Hunt, who Maroulis said was Liddy's trusted friend. "From the evidence here, it can well be inferred that Mr. Liddy got hut by that trust," Maroulis said.

McCord's lawyer, Gerald Alch, told the jury that McCord "is the type of man who is loyal to his country and who does what he thinks is right." At one point, Judge Sirica interrupted and told Alch he was only giving his "personal opinion."

Alch criticized Sirica during a recess, saying the Judge "did not limit himself to acting as a judge-he has become in addition, a prosecutor and an investigator ... Not only does he indicate that the defendants are guilty, but that a lot of other people are guilty. The whole courtroom is permeated with a prejudicial atmosphere."

Alch said that "in 15 years of practicing law" he had not been previously interrupted by a judge while giving his final argument.

McCord and Liddy were each convicted of the following counts:

Conspiring to burglarize, wiretap and electronically eavesdrop on the Democratic Party's Watergate headquarters. (Maximum penalty-five years' Imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.)

Burglarizing the Democratic headquarters with the intent to steal the property of another. (Maximum penalty-15 years imprisonment.)

Buglarizing the Democratic headquarters with the intent to unlawfully wiretap and eavesdrop. (Maximum penalty-15 years.)

Endeavoring to eavesdrop illegally. (Maximum penalty-five years' imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.)

In addition, McCord was convicted of two additional counts:

Possession of a device primarily useful for the surreptitious interception or oral communications. (Maximum penalty-five years' imprisonment and a $10,000 fine).

Possession of a device primarily useful for the surreptitious interception of wire communications. (Maximum penalty-five years' imprisonment and a $10,000 fine).

Although the total number of years Liddy could be sentenced to adds up to 50 and McCord's total sentence adds up to 60 years, neither, according to legal sources, can receive consecutive sentences for both burglary counts.

As a result, Liddy's maximum sentence could be 35 years and a $40,.000 fine and McCord's maximum could be 45 years and $60,000 fine.

In addition to Liddy, McCord and Hunt, four men from Miami were named in the indictment - Bernard L. Barker, Frank Sturgis, Virgilio R. Gonzalez and Eugenio R. Martinez.

All four pleaded guilty Jan. 15 to the seven counts with which they were charged.

They face maximum sentences of 40 years in jail and fines of $50,000. The four men were arrested, with McCord, by Washington police in the Democratic Party headquarters at 2:30 a.m. on June 17. The arrests marked the beginning of the Watergate affair.

These five men, dressed in business suits and wearing rubber surgical gloves, had electronic bugging equipment and sophisticated cameras in film. In their possession or their rooms they had $5,300 in $100 bills.

The story unfolded slowly. The day after the arrests, it was learned that one of the five men was the security coordinator for the President's reelection committee. That was McCord, one of the two defendants left in the Watergate trial yesterday.

Two days after the break-in White House consultant Hunt was linked to the five suspects. Hunt pleaded guilty to all counts in the opening days of the trial.

Near the end of July, it was learned that the finance counsel to the Nixon Reelection Committee was fired because he refused to answer FBI questions about the Watergate bugging and break-in. The counsel was Liddy, a former Treasury and White House aide who was the other defendant to remain in the trial.

On Aug. 1, The Washington Post reported that a $25,000 cashier's check intended as a contribution tot he Nixon reelection effort has been deposited in the Miami bank account of one of the Watergate suspects. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, ordered an immediate audit of the Nixon campaign finances.

The audit report concluded that former Commerce Secretary Maurice H. Stans, the chief Nixon fund-raiser, has a possible illegal cash fund of $350,000 in his office safe.

The $25,000 from the cashier's check and another $89,000 from four Mexican checks passed through that fund, the GAO concluded.

Last Friday, the Finance Committee to Re-elect the President pleaded no contest in US District Court to eight violations of the campaign finances law. The complaint charged, among other things, that finance committee officials filed to keep adequate records of payments to Liddy. The committee was fined $8,000.

In September, reports surfaced that a former FBI agent and self-described participant in the bugging had become a government witness in the case. He was Alfred C. Baldwin III, who later was to testify that he monitored wire-tapped conversations for three weeks from a listening post in the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge across the street from the Watergate.

On Sept. 15, the federal indictment against the seven original defendants was returned.

The next day, The Post reported that the $350,000 cash fund kept in the Stans safe was used, in part, as an intelligent - gathering fund. On Sept. 29, The Post reported that sources close to the Watergate investigation said that former Attorney General John N. Mitchell controlled disbursements from the intelligence found or so-called "secret fund."

On Oct. 10, The Post reported that the FBI had concluded that the Watergate bugging was just one incident in a campaign of political sabotage directed by the White House and the Nixon committee.

The story identified Donald H. Segretti, a young California lawyer, as a paid political spy who traveled around the country recruiting others and disrupting the campaigns of Democratic presidential contenders.

Five days later, the President's appointments secretary, Dwight L. Chapin, was identified as a person who hire Segretti and received reports from him. Segretti's other contact was Watergate defendant Hunt. Segretti received about $35,000 in pay for the disruptive activities from Herbert W. Kalmbach, the President's personal attorney, according to federal investigators.

This Monday it was announced that Chapin was resigning his White House job. Segretti was not called as a witness in the trial.