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Figures in Watergate

This Day in History: Nixon’s Top Three Administration Officials Sentenced to Prison

Gettyimages | Bettmann
By Sharon Oliver

On February 21, 1975, former Nixon White House aides H. R. Haldeman, 48, and John D. Ehrlichman, 49, along with former U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell, 61, were sentenced to 2 1/2 to 8 years in prison for conspiracy and obstruction of justice regarding the Watergate cover-up, paying nearly half a million dollars in "hush money" to the Watergate burglars, and lying to investigators.

They were three of the most powerful men in the Nixon administration, who ironically enough promoted a “law and order” theme.

Conspiracy Charges


The three men were found by a jury to be guilty of paying hush money to the Watergate burglars who broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters on 17, 1972. One of the Watergate burglar defendants, Kenneth Parkinson, a former attorney for the Committee for the Re-election of the President, was acquitted.

Mitchell and Haldeman faced a possible maximum sentence of 25 years because of their conviction on five counts—conspiracy, obstruction of justice and three counts of lying under oath. Ehrlichman was looking at the possibility of facing a maximum of 20 years for conviction of conspiracy, obstruction and two counts of lying under oath.

John Mitchell

John and Martha Mitchell
Gettyimages | David Hume Kennerly

Former Nixon U. S. Attorney General John Mitchell, the only one of the men to comment on the sentencing, told reporters on the elevator from the courtroom:

“It could have been a hell of a lot worse. They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha.”

Mitchell had been separated from his colorful wife Martha at the time. Martha Mitchell became somewhat of a pop culture figure known for putting Nixon on blast in front of the cameras while inebriated. Labeled as the “Mouth of the South,” Martha Mitchell constantly tried to warn the public of what was going on and felt her husband would be scapegoated. A thorn in their sides, she was not afraid to speak her mind.

H. R. Haldeman

H. R. Halderman
Gettyimages | Hulton Archive

During sentencing, H. R. Haldeman’s attorney noted that his client had “never before” been in trouble and then he turned to the relationship between Haldeman and President Nixon, who was the central figure in the Watergate scandal and pardoned by President Ford of all Federal crimes while in office, thus escaping prosecution.

“I hope that Your Honor considers whatever Bob Haldeman did, he did not for himself but for the President of the United States; that the virtue of loyalty is not to be forgotten when evaluating all the attending circumstances; that he was caught up in a maelstrom that engulfed a lot of other good people,” Mr. Wilson said. “Whatever Bob Haldeman did, so did Richard Nixon.”

“Nixon has been freed of judicial punishment,” Mr. Wilson added.

John Ehrlichman

John Ehrlichman
Gettyimages | Bettmann

Next came the Ehrlichman defense. Mr. Ehrlichman’s daughter Jan sat in the spectator section but did not speak. However, a local attorney by the name of Ira M. Lowe, who was known for his interest in radical causes and who was recently retained by Ehrlichman, did speak.

Mr. Lowe started by saying that he was “not making an appeal for leniency,” nor asking that Mr. Ehrlichman “be placed on probation.” What was requested; however, did not involve prison. Mr. Lowe proposed that Mr. Ehrlichman, who worked as a lawyer specializing in land use before working in the White House, be sentenced to help the 6,000 "Indians" in the “eight northern pueblos in the area of Espinola, New Mexico.”

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