Sirhan, Sirhan Bishara

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SIRHAN, Sirhan Bishara

(b. 19 March 1944 in Jerusalem, Palestine), Arab nationalist serving a life sentence in San Quentin State Prison in California for the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy on 5 June 1968.

Very little is known about Sirhan's early beginnings, and details on his family background are sketchy. No one really knows what motivated the twenty-four-year-old Sirhan to kill Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of President John F. Kennedy, at a campaign rally in Los Angeles. Sirhan himself, when his eighth plea for parole was rejected, said, "I wish it had never happened." One thing is clear from his testimony during his trial—Sirhan deeply hated the West for its support of Israel. Growing up, Sirhan witnessed the suffering of Palestinian refugees in the aftermath following the creation of the state of Israel. Palestinians were removed from the land they called home in order to make room for the Jewish state. Sirhan saw this as unjust. He pointed out that Israel was "no underdog," and that in fact it was the Palestinians who were the underdogs and deserved the support of the West. When Sirhan saw his people struggling to survive without a home, he blamed Jews and Zionists for "beating away at them." The whole situation, he said, "burned the hell out of me."

Sirhan longed for fame. For much of his life, the Arab immigrant had suffered failure. He was not outstanding in school or at work, and he had little success with romantic relationships. To achieve notoriety, he fixed on assassinating Kennedy. In a notebook recovered after Kennedy's murder, Sirhan had written repeatedly that Kennedy must die.

The location was the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. At 12:16 a.m. (Pacific Standard Time) on 5 June 1968, Kennedy was shot three times. One bullet ripped into the right side of his head, damaging his brain. Kennedy never came out of the resulting coma, and after brain surgery was pronounced dead the next day at 1:44 a.m. Found in the hotel's pantry with the murder weapon still in his grasp, Sirhan was charged with Kennedy's murder, tried, and sentenced to death. However, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1972 when the Supreme Court ruled against capital punishment.

For many the crime seemed to be an open and shut case. Kennedy was shot; close by was his assassin, still holding the gun. Witnesses had seen Sirhan aim his .22-caliber pistol at the senator and fire. As for motive, Sirhan claimed that he killed Kennedy out of political protest, out of love for his country. It seemed as if there was no reason to probe further for an unknown assailant. But for some there were puzzling questions to be answered. Who was the woman reportedly seen with Sirhan before the murder? Why did Sirhan's notebook have references about promises of money in connection with the murder? Why did he seem to have no memory of the actual shooting? Certainly Sirhan was no help. Apprehended at the scene of the crime, he lied about being at a Kennedy rally on 2 June and also lied about his movements on 3 June. Apparently he had driven his car 350 miles on that day, but as to why or where, the only clue Sirhan would give was that "The FBI doesn't know everything."

Even though Sirhan was caught with the weapon, questions remained about what had actually happened. In Shadow Play: The Murder of Robert F. Kennedy, the Trial of Sirhan Sirhan, and the Failure of American Justice (1997), journalist William F. Klaber and Kennedy Assassination Archives curator Philip H. Melanson look at inconsistencies in the case. They believe that Sirhan may have been lying when he said he had no accomplice. According to Klaber and Melanson, ballistic evidence suggested a second gun may have been fired during the murder.

The truth seems elusive because puzzling factors cast doubt on what actually took place. Experts say the bullet that killed Kennedy came from behind, but witnesses saw Sirhan shoot Kennedy from the front. Bullet markings from Sirhan's gun appeared not to match the markings on the bullet that killed Kennedy. Also, Sirhan's gun held only eight bullets, but nine were said to have been fired. Furthermore, a security guard near the senator disliked the Kennedys; some witnesses saw him fire his weapon, but his gun was not checked.

However puzzling these factors, they can perhaps be explained. Kennedy turned his head before Sirhan fired, and this may be why the bullet hit him from behind. Also, Sirhan's gun was apparently fired by police officers who wanted souvenirs, and the residue may have affected slug markings. The presence of a ninth bullet may be explained because a police officer could have improperly identified a bullet hole. As for the security guard, there seems to be no way of telling what part he played. Photographs taken by photographer Jamie Scott Enyart during the assassination were never recovered after the police seized his camera.

One theory discussed by conspiracy theorists was that Sirhan had been "programmed" to shoot Kennedy by someone who could use hypnosis to direct Sirhan's actions. No doubt Kennedy—a proponent of civil rights and a crusader of organized crime—had his share of enemies. But if Sirhan was used as a tool to commit the murder, it has never been confirmed.

Anticonspiracy theorist Dan Moldea talked to Sirhan's family and friends, looked at the FBI files, and visited Sirhan in his San Quentin cell. In "R. F. K. Must Die!": A History of the Robert Kennedy Assassination and its Aftermath (1970), Moldea tells Robert Blair Kaiser that the police bungled the investigation because evidence that Sirhan may not have acted alone was lost. But in Moldea's book, The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An Investigation of Motive, Means, and Opportunity (1995), he suggests that the inconsistencies were caused by investigators' human error and incompetence. Talks with Sirhan had convinced Moldea that Sirhan was merely toying with those who wanted to believe he was innocent or that others had been involved.

Despite the debate over his role in the killing, Sirhan remained incarcerated. He became a model prisoner, earning high marks in college extension courses and performing his duties as a food server to the satisfaction of his guards. Nevertheless, Sirhan's pleas for parole, including his eighth attempt in 1986, were never granted.

Books that discuss the mystery behind Sirhan's case include Robert Blair Kaiser, "R. F. K. Must Die!": A History of the Robert Kennedy Assassination and its Aftermath (1970); John Seigenthaler,A Search for Justice (1971); Godfrey H. Jansen, Why Robert Kennedy Was Killed: The Story of Two Victims (1971); and William Klaber and Philip H. Melanson, Shadow Play: The Murder of Robert F. Kennedy, the Trial of Sirhan Sirhan, and the Failure of American Justice (1997). An article regarding Sirhan's rejected parole is in Time (7 Apr. 1986). People Weekly gives eyewitness accounts of the assassination in "In the Night Kitchen" (7 June 1993). A documentary released by William Klaber, "The R. F. K. Tapes" (1993), claims that Sirhan may not have been the killer.

A. E. Schulthies