Sirhan Sirhan’s crime is one mired in the tragedy of Palestine. The son of a middle-class Christian Palestinian family uprooted by the violent offensive of Jewish militias from its native Jerusalem and forced to flee to the United States, at age 24 Sirhan found himself at the centre of major historical events.
In the early hours of June 5, 1968, he shot an Iver-Johnson .22 revolver at Senator Robert F Kennedy (RFK), minutes after he had given a speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Despite contradictory evidence and witness accounts, Sirhan was summarily tried and sentenced for Kennedy’s murder.
Sirhan’s 50 years in prison are coloured by the failures of the US criminal justice system, in which racial disparities are apparent. A poor young unconnected Palestinian was easily convicted and accused of political fanaticism. Today, Sirhan would likely have been charged with “terrorism”.
Sirhan Sirhan has been denied parole 15 times. He was initially scheduled for release in 1984. Now 74 years old, this forever prisoner has served longer in jail than any Palestinian prisoner in Israel including Nael Barghouthi, who was imprisoned for 37 years, released and then re-imprisoned.
Who is Sirhan Sirhan?
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was born on March 19, 1944, in Jerusalem, the fifth son of Christian Orthodox parents. His father, Bishara, originally from the Palestinian village of Taybeh, worked for the British mandate government in Jerusalem’s water department, and his mother, Mary Muzher, was from Bethlehem. Sirhan witnessed the 1947 bombing of Damascus Gate as a child, the death of his older brother, a man disembowelled by a bomb and other traumatic events.
In 1948, with Israel’s seizure of mandate and Arab properties, Sirhan’s father lost his job. The family had to move from the Musrara neighbourhood to what was then Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem, where they shared a single room with nine other families. They immigrated to the US when Sirhan was 12, but his father returned to Palestine after a family dispute.
Sirhan went to high school in California and then attended a community college for two years but dropped out and held various short-term manual jobs. He enjoyed attending horse races and was interested in becoming a jockey.
He worked as an exercise boy at the Granja Vista Del Rio ranch but quit after he fell from a horse. He and his immigrant family were motivated to keep away from serious trouble and were not connected to any radical organisations.
Sirhan was fascinated with the idea of mind control. He was not a gun person but acquired a gun from his brother in early 1968 “for target practice”.
What happened on June 5, 1968?
He acted strangely in the days just before the assassination. When questioned later, he stated that he drove downtown on June 4 because there was supposed to be an anniversary commemoration of the 1967 war, but he had the wrong date (the anniversary was to be commemorated on June 5).
He stopped at the Ambassador Hotel, where he quickly drank four Tom Collins cocktails. Kennedy, who had won the California presidential primaries, spoke in the main ballroom until after midnight, then was guided to exit through the kitchen and pantry area.
Kennedy was shaking busboy Juan Romero’s hand when Sirhan, facing him, shot him. Five others were also hit and wounded.
RFK had a small security detail. Congress did not authorise protection of presidential candidates until after his assassination. He wanted to be able to see and touch people, and he was reportedly averse to being spied on by the FBI.
Two of his guards, Roosevelt Grier, a football player and Rafer Johnson, an Olympic gold medalist, tackled Sirhan, and witnesses heard him say, “I can explain. I did it for my country”. Thane Eugene Cesar, a security guard, was standing behind RFK. There was also Bill Barry, an ex-FBI agent who had followed Kennedy into the kitchen pantry area, and two more guards.
Numerous investigators and Sirhan’s defence teams believe that a second shooter was involved. An audio recording made that night by a freelance reporter, Stanislaw Pruszynski, revealed the sounds of up to thirteen bullets according to analysts and that there was insufficient time between certain firings for one weapon to have been used.
Sirhan’s Cadet model Iver-Johnson .22 revolver had only eight bullets. Three bullets hit Kennedy, two remaining in his body. A fourth bullet passed through his coat without injuring him. Five other people around him were also shot.
It has been suggested that there were three bullet holes in the ceiling and two bullets lodged in a doorframe, which the LAPD destroyed, along with the ceiling tiles.
According to the medical examiner and coroner, Thomas Noguchi, the bullet that hit Kennedy behind his right ear was fired from a distance of one inch (2.54cm) to one and a half inches (3.81cm).
Yet, according to witnesses, Sirhan was no closer than 18 inches (46cm) to him. Some posited that he had turned his head at that moment and so Sirhan might have hit him. There have been suggestions that one of the security guards could have shot him.
Sirhan’s attorneys William Pepper and Laurie Dusek maintain in a 2011 filing that led to another appeal for Sirhan, that the bullet hitting Kennedy’s neck was not from Sirhan’s gun and the bullet in evidence was switched for another.
Not incidentally, William Pepper was the lawyer for James Earl Ray in the trial for the murder of Martin Luther King and argues that a conspiracy took place then.
A ‘lone wolf’ or a conspiracy?
Sirhan claims to remember nothing beyond parking, going inside the hotel, being angry and drinking. A clipping was found in his pocket which quoted Kennedy: “The United States should without delay sell Israel the 50 Phantom jets she has so long been promised.”
More damning, a notebook was found in his home that contained repetitive scribblings of “RFK must die”. His demeanour was, however, not of a drunk man. He appeared calm, but also not “in complete control of his mind”.
To Americans reading about the radical Palestinian political groups that emerged in the wake of Black September 1970, it seemed a no-brainer that an Arab would become an assassin.
As recently as May 24, 2018, an article in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper tried to characterise Sirhan as the first “lone wolf” killer. As someone who writes on “terrorism”, I’ve learned that most “lone wolves” are, in fact, not alone – they are assisted or instructed.
Sirhan’s notebook also contained a sentence that Kennedy must die by June 5th. It was suggested this was because it was the anniversary of the 1967 war, although the Sirhan family’s trauma and displacement were in 1948. He and his defence and psychological experts have argued this writing and the shooting were done under hypnosis.
Why might others have wanted to kill Robert F Kennedy? To prevent him from becoming president, or perhaps to end the war in Vietnam sooner.
Others held that RFK might have succeeded in uncovering who killed his brother, John. He reportedly never accepted the official version of the JFK assassination.
In any case, RFK’s death was a huge loss for the liberals and the left in the US; he was charismatic, bore the Kennedy name and had been expected to win the presidency and carry on his brother John’s legacy.
Due to Kennedy’s assassination, Hubert Humphrey ran for president and lost to Richard Nixon, which ended any hope of returning to the policies John F Kennedy had initiated.
Sirhan’s testimony could not help him. Either he was politically motivated, or he was insane in the eyes of the public, except for those who began to believe that a conspiracy was at work. The idea of “diminished capacity” was too novel a concept in 1968. Furthermore, many Americans didn’t understand Sirhan’s Palestinian identity, since many newspapers simply identified him as Jordanian. If they did know who the Palestinians were, they were unsympathetic.
Sirhan explained that he admired RFK but felt betrayed by his staunch support of Israel and intent to send it 50 bombers. His defence attorneys argued that he had been hypnotised and that due to his prior traumatic experiences, was not wholly responsible due to diminished capacity.
This defence was discounted. Some aspects of the evidence were never satisfactorily explained, and elements of the evidence were omitted or improperly recorded or destroyed when controlled by the Special Unit Senator, rather than the Los Angeles Police Department. Others were suspiciously lost or “stolen”.
Sirhan was sentenced to death in the gas chamber. However, the California Supreme Court ruled all capital cases to be a violation of California’s Constitution and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Sirhan was housed in San Quentin Prison. His brother, Adel, and his mother, Mary, would travel to San Francisco to see him. There they stayed with a Palestinian friend who remembered Adel’s assertions that Sirhan wasn’t responsible for the assassination, even though he opened fire. Sirhan was later transferred to a correctional training facility in Soledad until 1992, and then to the state prison in Corcoran.
On March 1, 1973, while Sirhan was in San Quentin, armed members of the Black September group burst into the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Khartoum and took 10 hostages, including the US ambassador to Sudan, Cleo A Noel; Deputy Chief of Mission George Curtis Moore; Saudi Ambassador to Sudan Sheikh Abdullah al-Malhouk; his wife and children; and the Belgian and Jordanian charges d’affaires to Sudan.
First, the attackers demanded the release of some members of the Baader-Meinhoff group (a far-left West German organisation) and Sirhan Sirhan. Then they asked for the release of 90 Arabs being held by the Jordanian government, including Abu Daoud (said to have planned the 1972 Munich attacks).
President Nixon refused to negotiate, and the gunmen killed their three Western hostages before they were captured by the Sudanese authorities. The US believed that Yasser Arafat was involved in directing this operation and that the Palestinian Liberation Organization gave the order to kill the three hostages.
This incident did nothing to help Sirhan with his legal efforts at a reversal, a new trial or parole. He also could not improve his chances by showing remorse for his crime, as he claimed not to remember it.
Calls for a reinvestigation
In the early 2000s Sirhan’s lawyer, Larry Teeter, argued that his first lawyer, Grant Cooper had been compromised by a conflict of interest and Sirhan won the right to a new trial.
Teeter tried to have the venue for this new trial moved to Fresno, California but the motion was denied. Meanwhile, Sirhan’s brother Adel, who had handled his affairs, died in the spring of 2001.
A few months later, after the September 11 attacks, Sirhan was bizarrely accused of a connection to the suicide bombers because he had suddenly shaved his head and acquired a television just two days earlier.
His brother Munir explained to me that Sirhan was watching television during the attacks and had covered his head with a towel because he was cold. Apparently, the guards were suspicious of his mail, and that he was reading the Qur’an.
Although Christian, he was trying to retain his knowledge of the Arabic language. The warden placed special restrictions on him; he was questioned by the FBI and was unable to see visitors for an extended period.
Teeter died in 2005, and Sirhan had no counsel for some years. In 2011, Sirhan’s new defence team, Pepper and Dusek filed a motion for a new trial based on evidentiary claims.
These were supposed to include the testimony of Nina Rhodes-Hughes, a witness in the pantry, who said that despite her claim that there were two shooters, the authorities had altered her account of the events. Beside Rhodes-Hughes, four other witnesses heard more than eight shots, and the team highlighted other problematic details in evidence. However, the US District Court rejected their motion.
Sirhan had also shot Paul Schrade, a Kennedy confidant, the director of the United Auto Workers union, who recovered. At the age of 91, he testified at Sirhan’s 2016 parole hearing.
He has long believed there was a second shooter. He called for Sirhan’s release and said “the evidence clearly shows that you [Sirhan Sirhan] were not the gunman who shot Robert Kennedy,” but his testimony was disregarded by the parole commissioner.
In November 2013, Sirhan was moved to the Richard J Donovan prison in San Diego. Earlier last month, Robert F Kennedy, Jr visited him there and afterwards told the press that he supported the call for a reinvestigation of the assassination.
Sirhan’s father, mother, and brothers, except for one, have all died. While his mother was still alive, she said that she prayed that he would be released, forgiven, as in the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
This petite woman, whose only valuables on arrival to the US were two mother-of-pearl brooches marked “Jerusalem”, never saw that day. His brother Adel said the family never celebrated Christmas after 1968; “what’s the point when your family member is in jail?” Unspoken was the word, “forever”.
Sirhan has always articulated distress at his people’s treatment. Palestinians may see him as a casualty of their condition and an affirmation of their criminalisation in the justice systems. He, like many in Israel’s jails, is a forever prisoner.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.