The Trial And Its
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
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