Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on the first anniversary of the Six-Day War in 1968.
Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy on the first anniversary of the Six-Day War "willfully, premeditatively, with 20 years of malice aforethought." He also assassinated modern U.S. history.
by Denise Noe
Sirhan Sirhan did not set out with any grand plan to change U.S. history. He simply wanted to kill Robert F. Kennedy in revenge for Kennedy's support of Israel. As it turned out, Sirhan's assassination of Robert F. Kennedy -- on June 5, 1968, the first anniversary of the Six Day War -- would do more to alter the flow of U.S. history than even the assassination of President John Kennedy accomplished four years earlier. Although both assassinations would have profound and untold impact for decades to come, Sirhan's killing of Robert Kennedy would lead in a matter of months to the election of Richard Nixon as president, the escalation of the Vietnam War and eventually to the national nightmare of Watergate.
Kennedy, who was gunned down within minutes of winning the California Democratic presidential primary, would have gone on to win the Democratic presidential nomination and would, with little doubt, have soundly defeated Nixon in the general election in November. It is impossible to know what Kennedy would have accomplished as president, only that the next four to eight years and beyond would have unraveled in a far different manner.
Sirhan did not just assassinate Robert Kennedy. He assassinated modern U.S. history.
In 1968, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination was thrown wide open when President Lyndon Johnson stunned the nation by announcing on March 31 that he would not seek re-election. Earlier that month Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, running as an anti-Vietnam War candidate, had challenged Johnson in the New Hampshire presidential primary, finishing a surprising strong second to Johnson there and winning 20 of the state's 24 electoral votes. Once Johnson bowed out, Sen. Robert Kennedy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey joined the presidential race.
Humphrey was popular but tainted in many people's eyes by his association with the beleaguered Johnson administration. McCarthy, like Kennedy, wanted to pull American troops out of the Vietnam conflict so both candidates appealed to young Democrats. McCarthy lacked the dynamic personality and attractive background of Kennedy. Much of the luster of "Camelot," the common nickname for his assassinated brother John F. Kennedy's presidency, clung to the younger Kennedy. Moreover, many Democrats believed history would repeat itself to the party's advantage. Richard Nixon was the expected Republican nominee. John F. Kennedy had defeated him in the 1960 presidential election and RFK supporters believed another Kennedy would defeat him in the upcoming one.
On the evening of June 4, Kennedy was in the Royal Suite of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles watching TV as the returns poured in from that day's California primary. California, with its hefty 174 delegates to the Democratic convention, was a coveted prize. The candidate sat on a sofa with his wife Ethel, who was three months pregnant with the couple's eleventh child. Also with Kennedy were some of his best friends and closest associates, among them football star Roosevelt Grier and Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, aides Pierre Salinger and Ted Sorenson as well as press secretary Fred Mankiewicz.
According to Robert Blair Kaiser in "R.F.K. Must Die!" Kennedy learned from the major networks that he was winning. "CBS predicted a Kennedy victory by as much as 16 percentage points," Kaiser wrote. "NBC held out, [but] finally announced that a sampling of key election precincts, selected in advance to represent a cross section of the state, also indicated that Kennedy would win."
Buoyed by these predictions, the candidate went to the ballroom shortly before midnight to make a victory speech. At the end of it, the appreciative crowd chanted "We want Bobby! We want Bobby!"
A few minutes after midnight, Kennedy went through a side door that would lead through a crowded food preparation area into the Colonial Room where the press awaited him. Kaiser wrote that Kennedy was escorted by "an armed security guard" named Thane Cesar." Cesar "grabbed Kennedy's right arm and started pushing back the crowd in the pantry with his own right arm."
Suddenly a dark-haired, slightly built young man moved close to the senator. "Kennedy, you son of a bitch!" he shouted and repeatedly shot a .22 caliber pistol.
According to Kaiser, "Cesar, the armed security guard, also saw the gun. 'I saw a hand sticking out of the crowd,' says Cesar, 'between two cameramen, and the hand was holding a gun.' Cesar says he was blinded by the brilliant lights, moved toward the gun, then saw a red flash come from the muzzle. 'I ducked,' says Cesar, 'because I was as close as Kennedy was. When I ducked, I threw myself off balance and fell back and when I hit . . . I fell against the iceboxes and the senator fell down right in front of me."
A maitre d' named Karl Uecker grabbed the arm in which the shooter held the gun and pressed it down on the steam table beside him even as the gunman continued to fire. Others, including the powerfully built Rosey Grier and Rafer Johnson fought with the diminutive but well-muscled assailant and pried the weapon away from his hand – but not before all eight chambers had been emptied.
Writer George Plimpton was one of those struggling to disarm the assailant. According to William Klaber and Philip H. Melanson in Shadow Play: The Murder of Robert F. Kennedy, the Trial of Sirhan Sirhan, and the Failure of American Justice, Plimpton recalled the gunman as having "enormously peaceful eyes." Others would see the look of tranquility on the man's face and wonder if he was hypnotized or drugged.
A wounded Robert Kennedy, shot once in the head and twice through the armpit, lay flat on the floor. His speechwriter Paul Schrade was also down, struck in the forehead. Four others were also shot. All, including Schrade, would recover.
Kennedy would not. Surgeons struggled to save him. The senator received blood transfusions and a tracheotomy was performed to, as Kaiser wrote, "keep his airway clear of secretions and ensure a steady and adequate supply of oxygen to the brain." Doctors operated on his brain to remove as much of the bullet as they could and the blood clot forming as a result of it.
But Kennedy could not be saved. He died at 2 a.m., June 6, at Good Samaritan Hospital.
The man in custody refused to give police his name. According to Special Unit Senator by Robert A. Houghton, he coolly told the questioning officers, "I wish to remain incognito." However, he did not maintain a stony silence. At the police station, he spoke with officers on subjects not directly tied to the reason he was in custody: unrelated murder cases, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and the stock market. He even asked the police philosophical questions about the nature of justice.
Police attempted to coax the suspect to identify himself. Kaiser wrote how a police sergeant asked his name and got no answer. "What's the matter?" the officer pressed. "Ashamed of what you've done tonight?"
"Hell no!" the prisoner instantly answered.
He had been searched. He carried a column by David Lawrence dated May 26 that had been clipped out of the Pasadena Independent Star-News in a pocket. As James W. Clarke wrote in American Assassins, "The title of the column was 'Paradoxical Bob.'" In it Lawrence criticized Kennedy for opposing the war in Vietnam while advocating military aid for Israel.
According to Kaiser, at about 9:15 a.m. June 5, two brothers, Adel and Munir Sirhan, "were presenting themselves at the Pasadena Police Department" to identify the man being held for shooting the senator as their brother, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. Like them, he was a Palestinian refugee.
Even before the suspected assassin's name was known, the possibility that others were involved swirled through media reports. Like the killing of Robert's brother John four years previously, and the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr. only two months before, the assassination of Robert Kennedy would spawn a cottage industry of conspiracy theories.
Prominent in such theories is a phantomlike young woman "in a polka dot dress." According to Klaber and Melanson, Ambassador Hotel employee Vincent DiPierro told police that prior to the shooting he had seen Sirhan apparently accompanied by an attractive woman wearing "a white dress with black or purple polka dots." DiPierro said the woman and Sirhan looked and smiled at each other in a way that suggested acquaintanceship.
Kennedy campaign worker Sandra Serrano had an even more intriguing story about a polka dot dress-wearing woman. Kaiser reported what she told homicide detectives: "She said that during Kennedy's speech she had been out on the fire escape outside the Embassy Room 'because it was too hot inside' when three people came up the fire escape. One of them was a girl in a white dress with black polka dots, a Caucasian with dark brown . . . With her was a young man of about 23, perhaps a Mexican-American . . . and another young man with 'messed-up clothes and a lot of hair.' Then, said Sandra Serrano, 'the same girl, about two, two minutes later, three minutes later maybe, came running down the stairs. She practically stepped on me, and she said, 'We've shot him. We've shot him.' Then I said, 'Who did you shoot?' and she said, 'We shot Senator Kennedy.'"
Police suspected the stories told by Serrano and DiPierro. According to Houghton, Serrano made a long-distance phone call to her mother immediately after the shooting but never mentioned the polka-dot dress. Houghton also wrote, "Captain Cecil R. Lynch of the Los Angeles Fire Department had been making the rounds of various stairways and exits from the Embassy Ballroom to check for possible fire-law violations that evening of June 4. He had personally inspected the outside flight of stairs on which Sandra Serrano claimed to have been seated during Sen. Kennedy's victory speech. Lynch saw no one on the stairs at that time."
Both DiPierro and Serrano took polygraph tests. Both flunked and admitted they had fabricated their stories. The police discounted the theory that Sirhan had a polka-dot dress-wearing accomplice but she continues to haunt conspiracy scenarios.
Different conspiracy theorists posit different villains. Arab terrorists are high on the list of theorists' possible conspirators, logically enough given Sirhan's background. Others believe organized crime was behind the murder. Bobby Kennedy had drawn the ire of Mob figures when he had acted as an attorney for the Senate Rackets Committee. Communists, the CIA, extreme right-wingers and other groups have been suggested as having masterminded the assassination.
In most conspiracy scenarios, Sirhan is a willing participant, often shooting at the candidate ineffectually so another assassin can do the actually dirty work of killing. However, some, including Klaber and Melanson, lean toward the possibility that he was an unwilling dupe, hypnotized without his knowledge or consent, a kind of real-life "Manchurian Candidate."
The Manchurian Candidate is a movie directed by John Frankenheimer and released in 1962. It stars Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury. Harvey plays veteran Raymond Shaw who was awarded a medal for rescuing a platoon of American soldiers captured by North Koreans in 1952. Officials do not know that Shaw was himself one of those captured and that, during his imprisonment, he was hypnotized to act as an assassin.
This is the scenario Sirhan himself now advocates. His current attorney, Lawrence Teeter, filed a petition July 24, 2002 challenging his conviction on the grounds that the late Grant Cooper failed to introduce evidence of Sirhan's having been "programmed through hypnosis to pull a weapon and fire it without knowing what he was doing."
The United States Supreme Court turned down this petition.
Despite the plethora of elaborate theories, intense investigation would only show indisputable links between the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the individual found with a gun in his hand, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. Many conspiracy theorists and his present lawyer see him as a dupe of shadowy and nefarious forces. The attorneys who defended viewed him as a disturbed man who acted out of a deep psychological sickness. Facts showed him a rational assassin who had good reason, from his particular political and personal perspectives, to hate Senator Kennedy and want him dead.
Sirhan Sirhan was born on March 19, 1944 to an Arab Christian family in Jerusalem. His father was a highly paid worker with the city's water department who adequately supported his wife and seven children.
Palestine was a fiercely disputed territory. Governed by Great Britain, the Zionist movement claimed it as the homeland of the Jewish people. That movement acquired special urgency in the aftermath of World War II and Hitler's attempted genocide of the Jews.
Sirhan Sirhan was an infant, then a toddler, in a neighborhood that rang regularly with hectic shouts, explosions, gunfire, and the anguished cries of the wounded and the grieving. According to James W. Clarke in American Assassins, a young Sirhan found the shot body of an Arab neighbor drenched in fresh blood. The entire Sirhan family saw a British soldier's body freshly mangled by a bomb and discovered his finger in their yard. Klaber and Melanson recount him as seeing an explosion resulting in "a little girl's leg blown off, and the blood spurting from below the knee as though from a faucet."
Clarke noted that Sirhan was only 4 years old when he witnessed a bomb explode and saw "the street strewn with the bloody, mutilated bodies of Arab victims." A worse trauma soon followed. Sirhan and an older brother were playing in the street. Gunfire broke out and a Zionist truck swerved straight into one of Sirhan's brothers, crushing the child.
After his death, Mary Sirhan forbade her other children to play outdoors. Her caution was understandable in a land torn apart by war. But it was also inevitable that growing, energetic youngsters chafed under this restriction.
In 1948, still during Sirhan's fourth year, Zionists attacked a village called Deir Yassin and massacred 250 people, most of them women, children and elderly men. Together with the official declaration of Israeli independence, it led the Sirhans, along with many other terrified Arabs, to flee their homes.
A family that had been comfortably middle-class sank into dire poverty. The Sirhans shared a tiny home in the Old Walled City part of Jerusalem with two other uprooted Arab families.
Grotesque violence remained a terrible part of young Sirhan's life. Kaiser recorded a particularly horrible scene remembered by Mary and Adel Sirhan. Little Sirhan was screaming as he ran to his family's crowded apartment. He was carrying a bucket, half-filled with water – and with a human hand floating on top of it. The sobbing boy was, understandably, "quivering with fright."
Sirhan and his father frequently clashed. According to Klaber and Melanson, a Palestinian-American named Ziad Hashimeh who had been friends with Sirhan when they were children called the father a strict disciplinarian. Hashimeh claimed he had seen Bishara Sirhan strike Sirhan "quite a few times" with both "sticks and hands" and that Bishara was "too emotional."
Like many Arab refugees, the Sirhans hoped a quick Arab military victory would restore their lives to normalcy. When that hope faded, the Sirhans sought to immigrate to the United States. They did in 1956.
The family journeyed to New York, then California. Sirhan was 12 years old when he set foot on American soil. As an adult, Sirhan would testify in court that he had experienced trepidation about moving because he "wanted to stay in my own country . . . with my own people."
Despite his reluctance to immigrate, adjusting to life in the new country seemed to be easier for Sirhan than some of his other family members. He had that most valuable attribute of the immigrant – facility with languages. He received adequate, although not good, grades and made friends in school.
After seven months in the United States, Bishara Sirhan abandoned his family to return to the Middle East.
Mary Sirhan got a job, as did Sirhan's older brother Aden. Thirteen-year-old Sirhan helped out by taking on a paper route.
In high school, the seemingly well-adjusted Sirhan joined the officer cadet corps and was elected to the student council in both his junior and senior years. Kaiser recorded Sirhan's brother, Munir, as saying that during this period Sirhan discovered a fondness for target shooting.
Sirhan's sister, Ayda, to whom he had always been especially close, became ill with leukemia soon after Sirhan entered college. He often skipped classes to help her and racked up a series of poor grades. She died before he was dismissed from college in 1964.
Continuing to live with his family, Sirhan got a job as a gas station attendant, then a gardener. In 1965, he became a stable boy at the Santa Anita racetrack. In between shoveling hay and sweeping up manure, he daydreamed of being a jockey. The goal was realistic for an athletic man of 5'5" weighing 120 pounds. One morning in September 1966 Sirhan was riding a horse to exercise it. He fell and the dream of becoming a jockey crashed to the dirt with him. He tried getting back in the saddle but had lost the nerve that a jockey needs.
He took a job clerking in a health food store.
He had another interest: guns. On Aug. 10, 1965, according to Robert Blair Kaiser's "R.F.K. Must Die!" Sirhan acquired a .22 Iver-Johnson revolver that he used for target shooting. Kaiser wrote that it is likely that his brother Munir purchased the pistol and gave it to Sirhan.
On the morning of June 4, 1968, Sirhan's name would be on the roster of the San Gabriel Valley Gun Club's as one of those using the shooting range that day.
As an Arab Christian, he was attracted to the pan-Arabism (rather than Islamic militancy) preached by Egypt's Gamal Abdal Nasser. Thus, he had a special reason to be emotionally devastated when Nasser's forces and those of his Arab allies were so easily vanquished by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War that started June 5, 1967 and was over by June 10.
Occultism caught Sirhan's interest. Klaber and Melanson wrote that "Sirhan fervently embraced the realm of the mind: self-hypnosis, mind control, mysticism. He practiced the mental projection of images and ideas. He frequented one Pasadena bookstore that specialized in the occult and got a part-time job at another. There he read books he could not afford to buy, books with titles like The Laws of Mental Domination, Thought Power: Its Control and Culture and Meditations on the Occult Life: The Hidden Power.
"Sirhan also joined the Rosicrucians, a self-described 'ancient mystical order.' In May 1968 he paid $20 to join after seeing an ad in a newspaper."
It was also during this period that Sirhan began keeping a journal. It is a most bizarre work. One indication of its strangeness is that it can be read in radically divergent ways. The prosecutors, as well as writers like Clarke, believe it conclusively proves rational premeditation. Psychiatrists who testified on his behalf thought it showed he was incapable of it. Others like Klaber and Melanson think it supports the hypothesis that he was the unwitting dupe of others.
In an entry dated "May 18," he wrote, "My determination to eliminate R.F.K. is becoming more the more of and unshakable obsession [sic]."
Why did Sirhan want to "eliminate" Bobby Kennedy? Clarke wrote of Sirhan, "there is little doubt that he read in the Arab papers that The New York Times reported on January 9 and 10, 1968, Sen. Kennedy's proposed sale of 50 Phantom jet bombers to Israel." Actually, President Johnson had negotiated the plan and Kennedy merely said he would honor it.
Kennedy had long been an outspoken supporter of Israel. The phrasing of the May 18 journal entry indicates that Sirhan had been planning to kill Kennedy for quite awhile before putting it on paper. Moreover, Kennedy's intention to send bombers to Israel had been reported much earlier in the year, as was his belief that America should supply Israel with "whatever assistance is necessary to preserve Israel's borders and protect the integrity of its people."
Later in his journal, Sirhan declared, "Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated by 5 June 68." That date was significant because it was the first anniversary of the Six-Day War as well as the day after the California presidential primary. According to Clarke, "Sirhan later explained to author Robert Kaiser: 'June 5 stood out for me, sir, more than my own birth date. I felt Robert Kennedy was coinciding his own appeal for votes with the anniversary of the Six Day War."
Other entries in Sirhan's diary read: "RFK must die RFK must die Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated must be assassinated." These phrases and many others repeat like lines from a broken record.
At his trial, the defense explained them as the product of a broken mind.
A Tangled Defense
Heading the defense team, all of whom took Sirhan's case pro bono, was 65-year-old Grant Cooper. A prominent attorney, Cooper was considered, as Klaber and Melanson put it, "at the top of his profession." Seventy-five-year-old Russell Parsons, another lawyer with a fine reputation, would also defend Sirhan. Joining the defense the day before trial began was Emile Zola Berman. Klaber and Melanson wrote, "Berman was a Jew, and Cooper thought that might help in defending an Arab in a case with political overtones."
Chief Deputy District Attorney Lynn "Buck" Compton led the prosecution. Deputy district attorneys John Howard and David Fitts assisted Compton.
Judge Herbert Walker presided over the trial. The bespectacled, white-haired jurist had been born in 1899 and enjoyed a reputation as an impartial judge.
The defense conceded that Sirhan had killed Kennedy but said he could not be guilty of first-degree murder because he suffered from a "diminished mental capacity" that prevented him from "maturely and meaningfully" premeditating the crime as was necessary for a verdict of first-degree murder under California law. They hoped for a verdict of second-degree murder that would spare him the death penalty.
Sirhan himself appeared deeply conflicted about a mental defense. He often seemed, by both actions and words, to accept the prosecution premise that he had assassinated out of rational political motives.
Prior to the beginning of the trial, Cooper had made a motion to quash Sirhan's indictment by challenging the representative nature of the grand jury's make up. Sirhan was called to the witness stand to testify about his poor financial status. As he took the oath, Sirhan raised an arm with a clenched fist over his head. This was obviously in imitation of the black power salute that U.S. sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos had given at the Olympics a few months previously.
When called to testify in his own defense at this trial, Sirhan again took the oath with an upraised arm and clenched fist.
During his testimony, Cooper asked Sirhan how he had felt toward his victim's older brother, President John Kennedy.
The witness replied, "I loved him, sir, more than any American would have."
Cooper asked him to explain and Sirhan said, "Because just a few weeks before his assassination he was working, sir, with the leaders of the Arab government, the Arab countries, to bring a solution, sir, to the Palestinian refugee problem, and he promised these Arab leaders that he would do his utmost and his best to force or to put some pressure on Israel, sir, to comply with the 1948 United Nations Resolution, sir, to either repatriate those Arab refugees or give them back, give them the right to return to their homes. And when he was killed, sir, that never happened."
Sirhan testified that he had no memory of the killing of Robert Kennedy. Nor did he have any recollection of wanting to kill Kennedy or of writing in his notebook of such a plan. However, he agreed that he must have killed the senator.
His being at the Ambassador was a matter of happenstance, he testified, rather than conscious planning. He had been eating at a Bob's Big Boy, reading a newspaper. One ad caught his eye. As Klaber and Melanson wrote, it was "for the 'Miracle March for Israel,' a parade on Wilshire Boulevard to celebrate the Israeli victory over the Arabs in the Six-Day War a year earlier. Sirhan told Cooper that just seeing the ad gave him 'a burning feeling inside.'"
He drove to where the parade was going to take place. Perhaps because he was upset, he had failed to notice that the celebration was scheduled for the next day. As Klaber and Melanson reported, "Instead of a parade, all Sirhan found was a storefront campaign party for U.S. senatorial candidate Thomas Kuchel. Sirhan stopped in and overheard that there were several larger parties going on at the Ambassador Hotel, a short distance away. He made his way to the Ambassador."
There he downed several Tom Collins drinks. He wandered around, then went back to his car. Deciding he was too drunk to drive, he went back to the hotel to get some coffee to sober up. Around a coffee urn, he saw a "beautiful" young woman.
The defendant claimed he next remembered "being choked." He had no memory of getting his gun from his car but said he "must have."
When questioned about his notebooks, Sirhan acknowledged that the handwriting was his so he must have written them but said he had no memory of writing in them and could not account for the repetitive entries.
On cross-examination, Sirhan said "I'm not even aware that I killed Mr. Kennedy," then "I know he's dead. I've been told that." He said he was "not glad" the senator was dead but "not sorry" because he had "no exact knowledge, sir, of having shot him."
At one point early in the trial, Sirhan wanted to abandon his defense. Trembling and gripping the sides of his chair, Sirhan told Judge Walker he wanted to plead guilty, "disassociate" himself from his counsel, and "ask to be executed." When asked why, Sirhan said, "I killed Robert Kennedy willfully, premeditatively, with 20 years of malice aforethought."
According to Klaber and Melanson, Sirhan's action was triggered because he thought two women whom he had had crushes on were going to be called as witnesses. Assured he was wrong, he took his lawyers back and allowed the trial to continue.
Clinical psychologist Martin Schorr testified for the defense. He said Sirhan suffered a "paranoid psychosis" and that he was probably in a "dissociate state" when he killed Kennedy.
On cross-examination, D.A. John Howard had Schorr read from the report he had made on Sirhan. That report gave a rigidly Oedipal interpretation in which, "By killing Kennedy, Sirhan kills his father, takes his father's place as the heir to the mother." It must have sounded suspicious to many listeners. The liberal American presidential candidate would seem a poor stand-in for Sirhan's strict Arab father.
This report, fishy on the face of it, became laughable when Howard showed that it seemed to have been lifted almost word-for-word from Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist by James A. Brussel. According to Klaber and Melanson, Grant Cooper said he "could have crawled under a table" during Howard's withering cross-examination of Schorr.
Another clinical psychologist, Dr. Orville Richardson, followed Schorr to the stand. Reading from his report, Richardson testified that Sirhan suffered "a very severe emotional and mental disturbance," that "his personality is highly fragile" and that he was "subject to episodes of acute and rapid deterioration."
When Richardson discussed test results that had led him to his conclusions, he seemed peculiarly unconvincing. He had given Sirhan a "test of similarities." Klaber and Melanson reported, "To the question how a banana and an orange are alike Sirhan said, 'You have to peel them before you eat them,' instead of 'They are fruit.' He said, "A coat and a dress are alike because they are both worn,' instead of 'They are clothing.' He said an ax and a saw . . . cut wood' rather than 'They are tools.'"
Klaber and Melanson comment quite astutely: "To Richardson these responses were 'indicative of impairment, some fracture in his intellectual process.' But to a member of the jury it may have seemed as though Dr. Richardson was reaching, for Sirhan's answers might well have been considered superior. That a saw and an ax both cut wood is a more distinguishing similarity than the fact that they are both tools. The same would be true of Sirhan's answer concerning the orange and the banana."
Dr. Bernard Diamond testified that Sirhan admitted killing Kennedy whom he regarded as an enemy of the Arab people but claimed he had no recollection of either the shooting or writing in his notebooks. After putting Sirhan under hypnosis several times, Diamond concluded that Sirhan had previously been hypnotized, probably self-hypnotized, and that those self-induced trances led to the assassination.
"With absolutely no knowledge or awareness of what was actually happening in his Rosicrucian and occult experiments," Diamond explained, "[Sirhan] was gradually programming himself . . . for the coming assassination." The programming took place in "his unconscious mind" while "in his conscious mind there was no awareness of such a plan." Diamond accepted Sirhan's claim that he had not planned to kill RFK June 4, 1968 but had found himself by happenstance at the Ambassador Hotel. There "the mirrors in the hotel lobby, the flashing lights, the general confusion" put him "back in his trances" and in this "almost accidentally induced twilight state he actually executed the crime."
The jury deliberated three days. On April 17, 1969, they found Sirhan guilty of first-degree murder. On May 21, Judge Walker sentenced Sirhan to be executed in California's gas chamber. Sirhan spent about three years on death row before the California Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in 1972. Today, the aging convict -- now in his early 60s -- is in California's Corcoran State Prison.
Conspiracies and a "Manchurian Candidate"
"Special Unit Senator," a group formed by the Los Angeles Police Department, investigated conspiracy allegations in the immediate aftermath of Sen. Kennedy's death. Its investigation concluded that Sirhan acted alone.
But it could not lay doubts to rest. Conspiracy buffs found enough unexplained items to buttress their theories.
Witnesses in the pantry differed grossly in their estimates of how close Sirhan got to Kennedy. As Andrew David wrote in Famous Criminal Trials, "Some witnesses said Sirhan's gun was as much as 10 feet away from Senator Kennedy when it was fired. Others said it was as close as two feet." But at least one shot was made at point blank range. It was also made to the back of his head and no one remembered him turning his head to his killer.
The one person who was known to have been close to Kennedy, within point blank range and armed was security guard Thane Cesar and many have pointed fingers at him. A conservative, Cesar had a strong dislike for the Kennedys. Moreover, as Juliet Ching wrote in The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, "A witness saw Cesar pull out his gun and fire at Sirhan." Some have speculated that he actually shot Kennedy. Of course, it should be pointed out that only one witness claims to have seen Cesar fire his gun and that the security guard said, as Klaber and Melanson recorded, that he only "displayed his gun."
Klaber and Melanson also reported that journalist Dan Moldea interviewed Cesar in 1989 and persuaded him to submit to a polygraph about his actions during the RFK assassination. According to Klaber and Melanson, "Cesar passed the test. Moldea subsequently concluded that Cesar had not participated in the assassination."
That no eyewitness can recall seeing Sirhan get close enough to RFK to inflict a wound to the back of his head is probably the result of the circumstances of crowding, confusion, blocked vision, and terror.
Sirhan's faulty memory is, in all likelihood, a way to distance himself from the crime. His emphatic "Hell, no!" when asked if he was "ashamed of what [he] had done" strongly suggests that he knew what that something was.
Klaber and Melanson believe he "did not behave like a political assassin" since he did not immediately proclaim his political motive. They think a politically motivated killer would have proudly given the reasons for the killing rather than hiding behind amnesia.
This seeming dichotomy can be seen as the reasonable result of Sirhan's understanding of his two cultures, the Arab for which he killed and the American in which he was tried. He believed his fellow Arabs would see his actions as political – as indeed they did. Klaber and Melanson noted that in the aftermath of the assassination Sirhan's "likeness [appeared] on tens of thousands of Al Fatah posters; the ambassador of the Palestinian UN delegation attends his trail; [and] he receive [d] adoring letters from Palestinian girls."
In America, Sirhan knew he had no chance of escaping conviction and a death sentence if he simply admitted in court he was politically motivated but might if a jury were convinced he was not completely mentally responsible. Saying he could not remember the planning or commission of his crime made perfect sense from that perspective.
Klaber and Melanson, among others, found his assertion that, "I murdered Robert Kennedy with 20 years malice aforethought" indicative of a distorted mind "since he obviously was not planning to murder Robert Kennedy when he was 4 years old."
They ignore its implications. Kaiser quotes his attorney Emile Berman was saying, "If we're speaking about a psychiatric defense, that means going back to the time when he was 4 years old." The 4-year-old Sirhan had fled with his family from their home after the Deir Yassin massacre and the Israeli declaration of independence. It was the defining trauma for him along with his fellow Palestinians. For most of his life, that grievance had festered inside him like an unhealed wound. That wound had been torn open and rubbed with salt when the Arabs were defeated with dismaying swiftness in the Six-Day War. He took revenge for it on June 5, 1968 with the assassination of the pro-Israel senator and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy.