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The Trial And Its Aftermath

After his arraignment, Sirhan Sirhan requested to see a lawyer from the ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union – which would represent him au gratis. Abraham Lincoln Wirim, chief counsel for the local branch, mediated for Sirhan and helped him obtain a corps of lawyers known for their championship of minorities. Leading the defense team was Grant Cooper, 65 years old, a lawyer since 1927 and former president of the Los Angeles Bar Association; assisting him were Russell Parsons, who had years in the D.A.’s office, and Emile Zola Berman, a man with an impressive criminal law record.

Named as head prosecutor was Lynn "Buck" Compton, Chief Deputy D.A. Coming into the trial, he made it clear that his chief aim was to restore the public’s trust in American law enforcement. Joining him were two assistant deputy district attorneys, David Fitts and John Howard.

Arraignment had been held in a reconverted chapel in the Los Angeles jailhouse, but as the trial drew nearer subsequent hearings were moved to a more secure briefing room on the 13th floor of the Hall of Justice. At an August 2 hearing, Sirhan pleaded not guilty.

Judicial and political cogs began to grind. "District Attorney Evelle Younger entered a motion to vacate Judge Alarcon’s (earlier) order limiting public discussion of the case by those connected to it," remark William Klaber and Philip Melanson in Shadow Play. "(Younger) may have had personal reasons for wanting (the) order lifted. It was no secret that he coveted higher office…Judge Alarcon’s order stood in the way of public statements that could give him recognition and stature." But, after several appeals, Alarcon’s order stood.

In early October, the upcoming trial was given a magistrate in the form of the no-nonsense Herbert V. Walker. Nearing the end of an impressive career on the bench, Walker was called "the dean of criminal court judges" by his cronies. Not one for sentiment, and a faithful apostle of the word of the law, he had handed down nineteen death sentences. Never judged to be unfair, he nevertheless failed to see the courtroom as a place for the humanities.

Judge Herbert V. Walker (UPI/Corbis- Bettmann)

Pre-trial proceeding continued. In mid-October, both the defense and prosecution agreed, based on the SUS’s findings that Sirhan Sirhan acted alone and would proceed with that thought in mind. Within the next week, administrative matters were called to order, including the judging of whether or not the police had had the right to enter Sirhan’s house in June and confiscate his belongings. The court agreed that because Adel Sirhan, who invited them in, was co-owner of the house, that move was proper and just. The notebooks could be used in court as evidence.

The official trial opened on January 7, 1969, after a long recess. It was held in the 75-seat-capacity courtroom on the 8th floor in the Hall of Justice, seven floors below where the preliminaries had taken place. Security was at the max.

At first, it appeared that there would not be a trial. A short time into preliminary arguments, the defense offered a practical plea bargain: Sirhan’s pleading guilty in exchange for the promise of life imprisonment without execution. The prosecution wholly supported the proposal, not only because the decision would mean avoiding a perhaps-long, perhaps-ugly trial, but because its own hired psychiatrist who had examined the defendant behind closed doors diagnosed him as a "psychotic" and, therefore, not medically liable for his crime.

Judge Walker disagreed. He threw out any bargaining options for one reason. "(We) have," he explained, "a very much interested public (who) continually point to the Oswald matter, and they just wonder what is going on, because the fellow wasn’t tried…" He was referring, of course, to the murder of JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, before he had a chance to be tried. Jack Ruby, who shot Oswald, never satisfactorily explained his actions, and an already-growing element of suspicion blossomed into the notion of a conspiracy. Walker wanted to prevent any such weedy growth before it began. The trial resumed.

The prosecution presented its arguments throughout February. First witnesses included the five wounded parties – Schrade, Weisel, Evans, Goldstein and Stroll – as well as other witnesses of the assassination, forensic scientists, handgun experts, the arresting policemen, and Sgt. William Jordan who first interrogated Sirhan following the assassination. A surprise witness for the prosecution was a trash man who served Sirhan’s neighborhood; he had heard the defendant hate-talk Robert Kennedy. The notebooks found in Sirhan’s bedroom were read aloud, analyzed and interpreted.

On February 28, defense lawyers counterattacked. Professional and lay witnesses spoke of Sirhan’s bad social upbringing as a child of war and the son of an abusive and wayward father. Psychoanalysts judged him of unsound mind and incapable of premeditating murder. The defense team highlighted his jockey-training days that caused him to fall from a horse on his head, that date being September 1966.

Sirhan Sirhan was noticeably uncomfortable with this dialogue on his mental stability. At one point in the discussion, he jerked from his chair and shouted, "I withdraw my original plea of not guilty and submit the plea of guilty as charged! I request that my counsel disassociate themselves from this case completely. Just execute me!"

As defense investigator Robert Blair Kaiser later accounted, "He raved because we were getting closer to the revelation that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and Sirhan didn’t want to be viewed as ‘crazy’. To him that would have been a disgrace."

Then the moment came that the country, indeed the world, was waiting for: Sirhan’s defense of himself. But, the moment proved disappointing. Firstly, he claimed he could not remember a single detail about "that night," continuing to insist that he had been intoxicated. He did admit, however, that he may have gone temporarily insane, angered to the point of rage over Kennedy’s recent shows of support of Israel. He cited, in particular, Kennedy’s agreement to help boost Israel’s air power.

But, that makes no sense to author Moldea, who attests, "On May 26, 1968, Senator Kennedy delivered a speech at Temple Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon, advocating the sale of fifty Phantom jets to Israel (for the Jewish-Arab war). According to law enforcement officials, the announcement brought Sirhan to the brink of his decision to kill Kennedy. Also, a documentary, The Story of Robert Kennedy, which implied Kennedy’s support for Israel, had aired for the first time in Los Angeles on KCBS-TV on May 20.

"The problem here," Moldea continues, "is that Sirhan – who claimed to be angry at Kennedy over his advocacy of sending jets to Israel – had written about his ‘determination to eliminate RFK’ on May 18 – two days before the television broadcast and eight days before the speech at Temple Neveh Shalom."

The trial, which ended April 14, had lasted 15 weeks and involved testimonies by 89 witnesses. On April 17, 1969, after three days of deliberation, the jury emerged from its huddle to present a verdict that wasn’t unexpected – guilty of first-degree murder of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and guilty of five counts of assault with a deadly weapon.

Passing of sentence occurred on May 21. Judge Walker condemned Sirhan Sirhan to death in the gas chamber. The most dramatic scenario in court that day – in fact, probably throughout the litigation -- was Mrs. Mary Sirhan’s woeful cries that her son had not received a fair trial. However, even though her pleas for mercy were refused by the powers that be, fate would intervene. While her offspring still balanced between life and death on death row, the state abolished capital punishment in 1972. Today, a 55-year-old Sirhan Sirhan remains, probably for the rest of his life, in Corcoran State Prison in California.

Within weeks after the trial, the Los Angeles Free Press ran a story by reporters Lillian Castellano and Floyd Nelson that resurrected the possibility of another gunman at the crime scene. They had photographic "proof" of two extra bullet holes in the wooden divider between the sets of swinging doors at the west end of the Ambassador Hotel pantry. A freelance photographer taking generic crime scene pictures had taken the photos innocently, they said.

With all of Sirhan’s alleged eight bullets already accounted for by the LAPD, wouldn’t this mean, they asked, that another gun had shot that night? Dan Moldea agrees that such a find would have been the revelation of the ages: "The discovery of even one extra bullet could prove that more than one gun had been fired."

There was a catch. The police had removed the door jamb in question from the Ambassador Hotel kitchen on June 28, 1968, ten months before the Free Press saw the photos and published the article. The door jamb had been destroyed. When the Los Angeles City Council, under pressure, demanded an answer why the piece had been done away with, Assistant Police Chief Daryl Gates responded. True, he said, there had been holes on that particular section of the doorframe and, yes, the police thought they might have been bullet holes. They brought the section back to headquarters for x-ray examination, but after the tests proved (quote Gates) "absolutely nothing," there was no reason to hold onto dead lumber.

When the council asked to see the x-rays, Gates shrugged. They, too, had been done away with, he replied.

In 1974, former New York Congressman Allard K. Lowenstein began taking an interest in the case after talking to several social and political friends about the mysteries of the Robert Kennedy assassination. One celebrity was TV star Robert Vaughn, who had become somewhat of a cause celebrite for those wanting answers. Lowenstein, along with Paul Schrade, Kennedy’s aide who had been wounded in the shooting spree and who had since filed a civil lawsuit for personal injuries, hosted a press conference demanding the case be reopened. They submitted a list of questions to the LAPD – among them, asking for more information about the missing doorframe.

Paul Schrade and Congressman Lowenstein (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann)

They never received an answer, but as a result of Schrade and Lowenstein’s media-reawakening efforts, photos surfaced from LAPD files that had been snapped during the initial crime area investigation. Two of the pictures are close-ups of the door jamb showing two holes, circled in chalk. Another shows Coroner Thomas Noguchi pointing to the holes. And in a fourth photo he is measuring the distance between them.

Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer who skyrocketed to fame with his intense prosecution of cult killer Charles Manson, enlisted his services in 1975. He sought affidavits from several people whom, he learned, had stated they remembered seeing bullet holes in the then-door divider. Noguchi, for one, said that it had been his understanding that the holes he is pointing to and measuring in the above-mentioned photos were scars made by bullets. Maitre’d Angelo DiPierro concurred that, as far as he was concerned, those were undoubtedly bullet holes, for had seen "a small caliber bullet lodged about a quarter of an inch into the wood on the center divider of the two swinging doors." Having served in the U.S. Infantry when younger, DiPierro confirmed, "There is no question in my mind that this was a bullet and not a nail or any other object."

Bugliosi also took testimony from a witness, Martin Patrusky, who witnessed the police’s reconstruction of the shooting. "One of the officers pointed to the two circled holes on the center divider (and) told us that they dug two bullets out…and I would be willing to testify to this under oath and under penalty of perjury."

Even though these stories merited further attention, the district attorney’s office remained disinterested. His reply read, "Selected and partial testimony regarding trajectory and bullets will only lead to public confusion…There is no justifiable basis for further expenditure of taxpayer funds to conduct a mere ‘fishing expedition.’"

Confounding the issue was the incessant question as to how Kennedy was shot in the back by a man who approached him from the front. All witnesses testified that Kennedy fell facing Sirhan. The assassin’s gun arm was pinned down by maitre’d Uecker after two shots; it continued to squeeze the trigger on impulse or otherwise; but, witnesses claim, even though the remaining shots went askew Kennedy at no time turned his back to the weapon.

"When confronted with this point, LAPD officials had referred instead to the panic and confusion that broke loose inside the pantry while Sirhan was emptying his .22 revolver into the crowd," Dan E. Moldea writes. "(The police said) eyewitnesses lacked the training and experience necessary to make their story credible."

As to any guesses who a "second gunman" could have been -- someone close enough to inflict a near "hit" on RFK – there was only one suspect: Thane Eugene Cesar, the Ace Security guard. Holding onto the senator’s right elbow and remaining virtually half-beside him, half-behind him in the procession through the pantry, Cesar was strategically positioned to pump a bullet or two into Kennedy when all hell broke loose. Moldea thinks Cesar was incapable of such a crime, but he does admit that the guard did have a "motive, means and opportunity".

When the firing began, Cesar was at point-blank range of Kennedy; and one eyewitness claims to have seen Cesar’s gun smoking; although he carried a .38 caliber service revolver, he did own a .22 at the time; he had publicly denounced the Kennedys; and he was on duty when Sirhan Sirhan managed to slip into the out-of-bounds pantry.

But, in his behalf, many important facts support his innocence. He had no criminal record; volunteered to be questioned; offered to submit his gun for investigation; voluntarily told the police about the .22 he owned; easily agreed to be questioned and given a polygraph test; remained openly honest about his political sentiments; and, most important, he had not been scheduled to work that night, but was called in at the last minute.

Cesar had – you pardon the expression – come under fire many times for his fated time and place in history – what Moldea analogously calls being "caught in the crossfire of history." But, suspicion has weakened during the last decade. Tongue in cheek, Cesar once stated, "Just because I don’t like the Democrats, that doesn’t mean I go around shooting them."

June 8, 1998 marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Robert Francis Kennedy. On that day, Sirhan Sirhan announced once again that he was innocent. In Pasadena, brother Adel spoke to the press from the front lawn of his home. "My brother was convicted on fraudulent evidence," said he.

Attorney Lawrence Teeter, representing Sirhan Sirhan, believes that his client was hypnotized that evening and made to serve as someone’s puppet. "An unconscious perpetrator does not commit a crime," Teeter expanded. "He was not aware of what happened…(He) was out of position, out of range and could not have shot Senator Kennedy."

According to a Reuters press release, "Teeter has filed a writ of habeas corpus before the California Supreme Court, asking for a new trial. ‘We’d like to find out why this evidence was suppressed,’ he said. ‘The only way to properly mourn Robert Kennedy is to find out who killed him.’"

Sirhan Sirhan at parole hearing (UPI/Corbis- Bettmann)

Meanwhile, Sirhan Sirhan remains in prison, having been denied his latest parole attempt in 1997, awaiting his next hearing in the year 2000. He is a model prisoner who continues to claim his innocence.

And so it goes.

Fleeting polka dots, two bullets too many, missing door frames, gangsters with a grudge, secret files – the list sounds like the agenda in a Hercule Poirot mystery. But, the ingredients make up one of the most perplexing cases of all time…and, let’s face it, create a conspiracy to stir the imagination. But, unfortunately, the controversy will probably never be settled.

The one fact in the case that is obvious and unerring is a sad one. The assassination, conspiracy or not, took the life of a great statesman and a man who probably would have been President of the United States.> RFK Assassination Page>  The Trial And Its Aftermath