Sirhan Bishara Sirhan Trial: 1969
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan Trial: 1969
Defendant: Sirhan Bishara Sirhan
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Grant Cooper, Russell Parsons, Emile Berman, and Michael A. McCowan
Chief Prosecutors: Lynn D. Compton, John Howard, and David Fitts
Judge: Herbert V. Walker
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trial: January
April 23, 1969
Sentence: Death, later commuted to life imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: The stature and prominence of Robert Kennedy guaranteed that the trial of his killer, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, would be of historic importance. And yet, had it been left to the prosecution and defense attorneys, there would have been no trial at all. Their negotiated plea bargain failed because a judge decided that full disclosure mattered more than legal expediency.
Flushed with triumph, Senator Robert Kennedy stepped down from the podium at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, having just claimed victory in the California primary election. He was seemingly destined for the White House in November. As he moved through the crowded hotel kitchen, on his way to meet reporters in another room, a young man emerged from the throng and began firing an eight-shot Iver-Johnson. 22-caliber pistol. Three bullets struck Kennedy, one in the head. The gunman continued shooting, injuring five bystanders, until he was subdued and taken into custody. His name was Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Jordanian incensed by Kennedy's support of Israel. The next day the senator died from his wounds.
That Sirhan murdered Robert Kennedy was beyond dispute—a roomful of witnesses saw him do it—but many doubted that the diminutive Arab would ever stand trial. District Attorney Evelle Younger, armed with a psychiatric evaluation of Sirhan that provided clear indications of mental disorder, readily accepted the defense plea of guilty to first-degree murder in return for a promise of life imprisonment. It was the kind of deal worked out daily in the county court system, vital if the system is to avoid legal gridlock. But this was not an everyday case.
Dominating all else was the specter of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. The alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had himself been gunned down before standing trial, leaving forever a labyrinth of doubt and suspicion. Determined to avoid such a recurrence, the judge appointed to try the Sirhan case, Herbert Walker, rejected the plea bargain in favor of trial by jury. This ruling left the defense with no alternative but to plead Sirhan not guilty and hope that they could prove his mental insufficiency.
A Murder Plan
The prosecution's opening statement, delivered by David Fitts on February 12, 1979, was packed with examples of Sirhan's devious and deliberate preparations for murder. Just two nights before the attack, he was seen at the Ambassador Hotel, apparently attempting to learn the building's layout, and he visited a gun range on June 4 to polish his already considerable skills with the pistol. However, the testimony of one prosecution eyewitness to the attack, author George Plimpton, backfired when he described Sirhan as looking, "… enormously composed. He seemed—purged," a statement which dovetailed neatly with the defense assertion that Sirhan had shot Kennedy while in some kind of trance. More on track was the testimony of Alvin Clark, Sirhan's garbage collector, who claimed that Sirhan had told him a month before the attack of his intention to shoot Kennedy.
Defense hopes of proving that this killing had been the spontaneous act of a deranged mind received a severe setback when Judge Walker admitted into testimony pages from three notebooks that Sirhan had kept. They revealed a mind seriously troubled, but quite calculating and willful. One entry written May 18, 1968, read: "My determination to eliminate R.F.K. is becoming the more and more [sic] of an unshakable obsession.… Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated before June 5, 1968."
Sirhan's behavior throughout the trial, always bizarre, reached a self-destructive zenith during some unwelcome testimony about his childhood. He raged: "I … withdraw my original pleas of not guilty and submit the plea of guilty as charged on all counts. I also request that my counsel disassociate themselves from this case completely."
Bemused, Judge Walker asked, "What do you want to do about the penalty?"
"I will ask to be executed," Sirhan replied coolly, an announcement which prompted a cavalry charge of reporters for the exits. Judge Walker continued, "This court will not accept the plea. Proceed with the trial." When Sirhan's counsel then attempted to withdraw of their own volition, Walker denied this also. It was all very confusing. Ultimately, order was restored and Sirhan took the stand.
Defense lawyer Grant Cooper didn't mince any words. "Did you shoot Robert F. Kennedy?"
"Did you bear any ill will towards Senator Kennedy?"
"Do you doubt you shot him?"
"No, sir, I don't."
Cooper then steered Sirhan into the reasons for his attack on Kennedy, a vicious diatribe about the Middle East conflict between Arab and Jew. So impassioned was Sirhan's anti-Zionist rhetoric that one of his own lawyers, Emile Berman, a Jew, felt compelled to offer his resignation from the defense team. Only soothing words from Cooper made him stay.
It took cross-examination by Chief Deputy District Attorney Lynn Compton to expose Sirhan for what he was: self-absorbed and arrogant, a master manipulator.
"Do you think that the killing of Senator Kennedy helped the Arab cause?" asked Compton.
"Sir, I'm not even aware that I killed Mr. Kennedy."
"Well, you know he's dead."
"… I've been told that."
"Are you glad he's dead?"
"No, sir, I'm not glad."
As an exercise in cynicism it was hard to beat. Certainly the jury thought so. On April 17, 1969, they returned a guilty verdict.
During the penalty phase, Prosecutor John Howard demanded death for Sirhan: "In resolving the question of this defendant's guilt," he told the jury, "you have found him lacking in honesty, in integrity, and even in the courage of his own convictions. You could not have failed to see the smirk … when he declared 'I don't know who killed Senator Kennedy.' "`Howard ended strongly: "Have the courage to write an end to this trial and to apply the only proper penalty for political assassination in the United States of America."
In pleading for his client's life, Grant Cooper quoted from several of Robert Kennedy's own speeches on compassion, but all to no avail. After 12 hours of deliberation the jury decided that Sirhan would die in the gas chamber.
As it transpired, all of the argument was academic. The U.S. Supreme Court's rulings on capital punishment in other cases resulted in Sirhan's sentence being commuted to life imprisonment. He remains in prison, where he regularly applies for parole and is just as regularly denied.
Interestingly, while Sirhan was being tried, in Memphis, Tennessee, another admitted assassin, James Earl Ray, pleaded guilty to the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was quietly dispatched without trial to prison for 99 years.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Goode, Stephen. Assassination! Kennedy, King, Kennedy. New York: Watts, 1979.
Jansen, Godfrey. Why Robert Kennedy Was Killed. New York: Third Press, 1970.
Kaiser, Robert Blair. R.F.K. Must Die! New York: Dutton & Co., 1970.
Scheim, David E. Contract On America. Silver Spring, MD: Argyle Press, 1983.