Photo: Sirhan Sirhan, left, reacts alongside his attorney William Pepper, as he is denied parole, at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, 10 February 2016. Gregory BullAP Photo

That tumultuous decade had already been marked by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and just two months earlier, on 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr.

24 August 2021 | Ashraf W. Nubani |  The Electronic Intifada

We are stuck in time.

It was 15 minutes past midnight on 5 June 1968. Senator Robert F. Kennedy had just addressed supporters in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, after winning the California primary.

He was campaigning to become the Democratic Party’s nominee, and potentially the next president of the United States.

As he left through the hotel kitchen, Kennedy was gunned down. Grievously wounded, he would die 26 hours later. Five other people were injured.

That tumultuous decade had already been marked by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and just two months earlier, on 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now Bobby, the younger brother of President Kennedy! The nation was again jolted by a political assassination.

Who killed Robert F. Kennedy?

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian Christian refugee from Jerusalem who had emigrated to California with his family in the 1950s, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder. He was there, he had a gun, it was fired and six people were shot.

The worst-case scenario for Sirhan is that he murdered Robert F. Kennedy with malice aforethought. Yet, conspiracy theories abound.

We do know the Los Angeles Police Department and government officials handling the case did a demonstrably poor job in investigating the crime.

However, their dereliction was mostly one of omission rather than commission. After all they had a suspect, murder weapon and a kitchen full of witnesses.

Eyewitness testimony was contradictory, however. Evidence was mishandled and some even disappeared.

Official forensic evidence left the door open to the possibility of a second shooter, one who was behind Robert Kennedy and fired at point-blank range, while the consensus of witnesses at all times places Sirhan in front of the senator and a few feet away.

Expert analysis of a long-ignored, poor quality audio recording of the incident registers 13 shots fired, five more than the eight-shot 22-caliber Iver Johnson revolver Sirhan was holding.

Further complicating the matter is that Sirhan does not remember the actual event itself. He recalls drinking that night, going to the hotel, meeting a woman, getting coffee and being agitated. He then remembers being grabbed, held down and almost choked to death.

Sirhan was never afforded the presumption of innocence. He would be conveniently labeled a Palestinian terrorist motivated by hatred of Kennedy’s support for Israel.

Although later upheld by higher courts, incriminating evidence was obtained at his mother’s home without a search warrant.

Sirhan’s lead lawyer during his trial, Grant B. Cooper, provided ineffective assistance of counsel.

Attorneys who have represented Sirhan in recent years contend that Cooper, who died in 1990, was compromised by the fact that he was under federal indictment for illegally possessing grand jury transcripts in an unrelated case, but that after Sirhan’s sentencing that indictment was dropped.

Cooper and the defense team failed to adequately challenge government evidence, seek expert testimony or pursue any avenue that tended to exonerate Sirhan.

Their strategy was to concede that Sirhan fired the shots that killed Kennedy, but to argue that he was innocent of murder due to diminished capacity.

Cooper’s team also negotiated with prosecutors a plea bargain in which Sirhan would admit to first-degree murder in exchange for not receiving the death penalty – a deal the judge rejected.

“You were not the gunman”

A key witness, Kennedy friend and victim of the shooting, Paul Schrade, now 96 years old, believes Sirhan was not the killer and that there was a second shooter.

In 2016, Schrade appeared at a parole board hearing, supporting Sirhan’s request to be released.

“The evidence clearly shows you were not the gunman who shot Robert Kennedy,” Schrade said, addressing Sirhan. “There is clear evidence of a second gunman in that kitchen pantry who shot Robert Kennedy.”

Schrade forgave Sirhan for injuring him and added, “I should have been here long ago.”

Robert F. Kennedy, then US attorney general, left, with his brother President John F. Kennedy at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, 7 May 1963. (Cecil Stoughton/US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)
Robert F. Kennedy, then US attorney general, left, with his brother President John F. Kennedy at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, 7 May 1963. (Cecil Stoughton/US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most important family members, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., also does not believe Sirhan acted alone.

In 2017, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. visited Sirhan in prison, made his peace with him and came out asking for a reinvestigation of one of the most controversial political assassinations of the 20th century.

“I went there because I was curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence,” Kennedy explained. “I was disturbed that the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father. My father was the chief law enforcement officer in this country. I think it would have disturbed him if somebody was put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.”

How does America free itself from such a politically charged event that is seared into its collective psyche until today? We confront it by supporting the calls of a reinvestigation. Notwithstanding, Sirhan Sirhan should be granted parole after all these years.

In 1969 he was sentenced to death by gas chamber. At the time, Robert F. Kennedy’s brother, the since-deceased Senator Edward Kennedy, speaking on behalf of the family wrote a letter to the prosecutor asking in vain that Sirhan’s life be spared.

“My brother was a man of love and sentiment and compassion. He would not have wanted his death to be a cause for the taking of another life,” Edward Kennedy wrote.

What saved Sirhan from the death chamber was a change in California law in 1972. The death penalty was abolished in 1976 based on a Supreme Court case that deemed state death penalty laws that did not allow for mitigation unconstitutional. In Sirhan’s case he was resentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

He has had 15 parole hearings since his conviction. Each request has been denied. His next parole hearing is 27 August.

Stuck in time

Sirhan was 24 at the time of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. Under today’s legal standards he might be considered a youthful offender.

He is now 77.

He has served more than 50 years in prison. In that time, he has been a model prisoner. Psychiatric assessments place him at the lowest level of risk for violence. He has expressed remorse for the tragedy.

Being a convicted felon would necessitate his deportation to Jordan where as a Palestinian he was granted citizenship.

Many Americans, if properly informed, like the Kennedys, believe in Christian forgiveness, redemption and rehabilitation.

Yet, we are stuck in time. Even the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, ostensibly the motive for the killing, has itself gone through numerous phases and changes such that it should no longer be manipulated as a partisan tool of politics.

As more than five decades have gone by, public opinion is also changing.

While older Americans have been affected by the events of 1968 and many may exhibit bias, younger Americans are less impacted and are in favor of criminal law and prison reform.

The financial cost of prison overcrowding is another public concern.

With much talk about righting historical injustices, replacing old symbols of oppression and purging evils of the past it behooves us to seize an opportunity to change the course of history in harmony with the liberal ideals for which Robert F. Kennedy worked, fought and died.

The old legal adage still holds true, “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Whereas the killers of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy are dead, as a nation we still have a fading opportunity to honor our virtues, reinvestigate the case and show mercy to a man who, for the moment, is alive.

Ashraf W. Nubani is an attorney and a Palestinian American and Muslim community leader in the Washington, DC, metro area.