Mug shot taken on May 23, 1969
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan
March 19, 1944
|Height||5 ft 5 in (1.65 m)|
|Criminal status||Incarcerated at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California|
|Criminal charge||Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy|
|Penalty||Death in 1969; commuted in 1972 to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole|
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan (;Arabic: Sirn Bira Sirn, born March 19, 1944) is a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship who assassinated United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California, on June 5, 1968; Kennedy died the following day at Good Samaritan Hospital. Sirhan was convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California.
Sirhan was born in Jerusalem an Arab Christian, and he attended a Lutheran school. In 1989, he told David Frost, "My only connection with Robert Kennedy was his sole support of Israel and his deliberate attempt to send those 50 [fighter jet] bombers to Israel to obviously do harm to the Palestinians." Some scholars believe that the assassination was the first major incident of political violence in the United States stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.
Sirhan was born into an Arab Palestinian Christian family in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine. As a child growing up in the West Bank, Sirhan was traumatized by the violence he witnessed in the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the death of his older brother, who was run over by a Jordanian military vehicle that was swerving to escape Israeli gunfire.
When Sirhan was 12 years old, his family emigrated to the US, moving briefly to New York and then to California. In Altadena, he attended Eliot Junior High School, followed by John Muir High School and Pasadena City College, both in Pasadena. Sirhan's father, Bishara, has been characterized as a stern man who often beat his sons harshly. Shortly after the family's move to California, Bishara returned alone to the Middle East. Standing 5 feet 5 inches (165 cm) and weighing 120 pounds (54 kg) at 20 years old, Sirhan moved to Corona to train to be a jockey while working at a stable, but lost his job and abandoned the pursuit after suffering a head injury in a racing accident.
Sirhan never became an American citizen, retaining instead his Jordanian citizenship. As an adult, he changed church denominations several times, joining Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist churches. Then in 1966, he joined the occult organization Ancient Mystical Order of the Rose Cross, commonly known as the Rosicrucians.
Around 12:15 a.m. PDT on June 5, 1968, Sirhan fired a .22 caliber Iver-Johnson Cadet revolver at United States Senator Robert Kennedy and the crowd surrounding him in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles shortly after Kennedy had finished addressing supporters in the hotel's main ballroom. Authors George Plimpton, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, former professional football player Rosey Grier, and 1960 Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson were among several men who subdued and disarmed Sirhan after a struggle.
Kennedy was shot three times--once in the head and twice in the back--with a fourth bullet passing through his jacket. He died almost 26 hours later at Good Samaritan Hospital. Five other people at the party were also shot, but all five recovered: Paul Schrade, an official with the United Automobile Workers union; William Weisel, an ABC TV unit manager; Ira Goldstein, a reporter with the Continental News Service; Elizabeth Evans, a friend of Pierre Salinger, one of Kennedy's campaign aides; and Irwin Stroll, a teenage Kennedy volunteer.
In a 2018 interview with The Washington Post, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said that he traveled to the Richard J. Donovan correctional facility in California to meet with Sirhan, and that after a relatively lengthy conversation (the details of which he would not disclose), believed that Sirhan did not kill his father and that a second gunman was involved.
Despite the fact that Sirhan admitted his guilt in a recorded confession while in police custody on June 9, a lengthy, publicized trial followed in The People of the State of California v. Sirhan Sirhan. The judge did not accept his confession and denied his request to withdraw his plea of "not guilty" in order to plead "guilty".
On February 10, 1969, Sirhan's lawyers made a motion in chambers to enter a plea of guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for life imprisonment rather than the death penalty. Sirhan told Judge Herbert V. Walker that he wanted to withdraw his original plea of not guilty in order to plead guilty as charged on all counts. He also asked that his counsel "dissociate themselves from this case completely." The judge asked him what he wanted to do about sentencing, and Sirhan replied, "I will ask to be executed." Walker denied the motion and said, "This court will not accept the plea." He also denied Sirhan's request for his counsel to withdraw; his counsel entered another motion to withdraw from the case of their own volition, but Walker denied that too. Walker subsequently ordered that the record be sealed pertaining to the motion.
The trial proceeded, and opening statements began on February 12. The lead prosecutor in the case was Lynn "Buck" Compton, a World War II veteran of Easy Company fame who later became a justice of the California Court of Appeal. David Fitts delivered the prosecution's opening statement, providing examples of Sirhan's preparations to kill Kennedy. The prosecution showed that Sirhan was seen at the Ambassador Hotel on June 3, two nights before the attack, to learn the building's layout, and that he visited a gun range on June 4. Alvin Clark, Sirhan's garbage collector, testified that Sirhan had told him a month before the attack of his intention to shoot Kennedy.
Sirhan's defense counsel included attorney Grant Cooper, who had hoped to demonstrate that the killing had been the impulsive act of a man with a mental deficiency. But Walker admitted into evidence pages from three of the journal notebooks Sirhan had kept that showed the murder was premeditated and "quite calculating and willful." On March 3, Cooper asked Sirhan in direct testimony if he had shot Kennedy; Sirhan replied, "Yes, sir," but then said that he did not bear Kennedy any ill will. Sirhan also testified that he had killed Kennedy "with 20 years of malice aforethought." He explained in an interview with David Frost in 1989 that this referred to the time since the creation of the State of Israel. He has maintained since then that he has no memory of the crime, or of making that statement in court.
Cooper asked Sirhan to explain his reasons for attacking Kennedy, and Sirhan launched into "a vicious diatribe about the Middle East conflict between Arab and Jew." Defense counsel Emile Zola Berman, who was Jewish, was upset by Sirhan's statements, and expressed his intention to resign from the defense team. Cooper eventually talked Berman out of resigning, and he stayed until the end of the trial.
The defense based its case primarily on the expert testimony of Bernard L. Diamond, M.D., a professor of law and psychiatry at the University of California, Berkeley who testified that Sirhan was suffering from diminished capacity at the time of the murder.
Sirhan was convicted on April 17, 1969, and was sentenced six days later to death in the gas chamber. Three years later, his sentence was commuted to life in prison, owing to the California Supreme Court's decision in The People of the State of California vs. Robert Page Anderson, which ruled that capital punishment is a violation of the California Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The February 1972 decision was retroactive, invalidating all existing death sentences in California.
Sirhan's lawyer Lawrence Teeter later argued that Grant Cooper was compromised by a conflict of interest and was, as a consequence, grossly negligent in defense of his client. The defense moved for a new trial amid claims of setups, police bungles, hypnotism, brainwashing, blackmail, and government conspiracies. On June 5, 2003, coincidentally the 35th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, Teeter petitioned a federal court in Los Angeles to move the case to Fresno. He argued that Sirhan could not get a fair hearing in Los Angeles, where a man who helped prosecute him is now a federal judge: U.S. District Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr. in Los Angeles was an assistant U.S. attorney during Sirhan's trial, and part of the prosecutorial team.
Since 1994 Teeter had been trying to have state and federal courts overturn Sirhan's conviction, arguing his client was hypnotized and framed, possibly by a government conspiracy. During one hearing Teeter referred to testimony from the original trial transcripts regarding a prosecution eyewitness to the attack, author George Plimpton, in which he said that Sirhan looked "enormously composed. He seemed ... purged." This statement coincided with the defense's argument that Sirhan had shot Kennedy while in some kind of hypnotic trance. The motion was denied. Teeter died in 2005, and Sirhan declined other counsel to replace him.
On November 26, 2011, Sirhan's defense teams filed court papers for a new trial, saying that "expert analysis of recently uncovered evidence shows two guns were fired in the assassination and that Sirhan's revolver was not the gun that shot Kennedy" and he "should be freed from prison or granted a new trial based on 'formidable evidence', asserting his innocence and 'horrendous violations' of his rights".
On January 5, 2015, Sirhan's motion was denied by U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O'Connell in Los Angeles, who said that Sirhan "failed to meet the showing required for actual innocence" that might excuse his having failed to seek his freedom sooner in federal court. In other words, Sirhan's case was not strong enough. "Though petitioner advances a number of theories regarding the events of June 5, 1968, petitioner does not dispute that he fired eight rounds of gunfire in the kitchen pantry of the Ambassador Hotel", O'Connell wrote. "Petitioner does not show that it is more likely than not that no juror, acting reasonably, would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
A motive cited for Sirhan's actions is the Middle East conflict. After his arrest, Sirhan said, "I can explain it. I did it for my country." Sirhan believed that he was deliberately betrayed by Kennedy's support for Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War, which had begun one year to the day before the assassination. During a search of Sirhan's apartment after his arrest, a spiral-bound notebook was found containing a diary entry that demonstrated that his anger had gradually fixated on Kennedy, who had promised to send 50 fighter jets to Israel if elected president. Sirhan's journal entry of May 18, 1968, read: "My determination to eliminate R.F.K. is becoming the more and more of an unshakable obsession...Kennedy must die before June 5th." They found other notebooks and diary entries expressing his growing rage at Kennedy; his journals also contained many nonsensical scribbles that were thought to be his version of "free writing".
The next day, on June 6, the Los Angeles Times printed an article by Jerry Cohen that discussed Sirhan's motive for the assassination, confirmed by the memos Sirhan wrote to himself. The article stated:
When the Jordanian nationalist, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, allegedly shot Kennedy, ostensibly because of the senator's advocacy of U.S. support for Israel, the crime with which he was charged was in essence another manifestation of the centuries-old hatred between Arab and Jew.
M.T. Mehdi, then secretary-general of the Action Committee on American-Arab Relations, believed that Sirhan had acted in justifiable self-defense, stating: "Sirhan was defending himself against those 50 Phantom jets Kennedy was sending to Israel." Mehdi wrote a 100-page book on the subject called Kennedy and Sirhan: Why?
Later in prison, Sirhan claimed that he was drunk. An interview with Sirhan in 1980 revealed new claims that a combination of liquor and anger over the anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war triggered his actions. "You must remember the circumstances of that night, June 5. That was when I was provoked," Sirhan says, recorded in a transcript of one of his interviews with Mehdi, later president of the New York-based American-Arab Relations Committee. "That is when I initially went to observe the Jewish Zionist parade in celebration of the June 5, 1967, victory over the Arabs. That was the catalyst that triggered me on that night." Then Sirhan said, "In addition, there was the consumption of the liquor, and I want the public to understand that."
In 1971, Sirhan was housed in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin State Prison. He was subsequently transferred to the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad, California, where he was confined until 1992. From 1992 to 2009 he was confined at the California State Prison (COR) in Corcoran, California, and lived in COR's Protective Housing Unit until he was moved to a harsher lockdown at COR in 2003. In October 2009, ostensibly for his safety, he was transferred to the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, California, where he was housed in a cell by himself. He was subsequently moved back to Corcoran.
On November 22, 2013, Sirhan was transferred from Corcoran to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County. The transfer occurred on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said that the transfer was "a routine matter of housing allotments" and its timing was "simply an unfortunate coincidence".
In a 1980 interview with M. T. Mehdi, Sirhan claimed that his actions were fueled by liquor and anger. He then complained that the parole board was not taking these "mitigating" circumstances into account when they continually denied his parole.
On May 10, 1982, Sirhan told the parole board: "I sincerely believe that if Robert Kennedy were alive today, I believe he would not countenance singling me out for this kind of treatment. I think he would be among the first to say that, however horrible the deed I committed 14 years ago was, that it should not be the cause for denying me equal treatment under the laws of this country."
A parole hearing for Sirhan is now scheduled every five years. On March 2, 2011, after 42 years in prison, Sirhan's 14th parole hearing was held, with Sirhan represented by his current attorney, William Francis Pepper. At this hearing, Sirhan testified that he continues to have no memory of the assassination nor of any details of his 1969 trial and confession. Pepper also repeated the claim Sirhan's lawyers had previously made that Sirhan was "hypno-programmed" and his memory of being programmed was "wiped" by an unknown conspiracy behind the assassination. Pepper said he hired Daniel Brown of Harvard Medical School to spend more than 60 hours with Sirhan in prison and recover his memory of both the shooting and having been put under hypnosis. His parole was denied on the grounds that Sirhan still does not understand the full ramifications of his crime.
On February 10, 2016, at his 15th parole hearing, Sirhan was denied parole again. One of Sirhan's shooting victims from that night, Paul Schrade, now aged 91, testified in support of Sirhan, stating his belief that a second shooter killed Kennedy and that Sirhan was intended to be a distraction from the real gunman by an unknown conspiracy. Sirhan also repeated his claim to have no memory of the shooting. In his testimony before the parole board, Sirhan recalled events before the shooting in some detail - going to a shooting range the day before, June 4, 1968, visiting the hotel on June 5 in search of a party and returning to the lobby after realizing he had drunk too many Tom Collins cocktails to drive. He next claimed to have drunk coffee in a backstage area near the hotel pantry with a woman to whom he was attracted, and who may have been involved with the conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. Dr. Brown has stated that the unknown woman then took Sirhan into the pantry, which Sirhan described in his prison memory sessions as a dark room at the hotel, and that while in the pantry the woman gave Sirhan a post-hypnotic cue to fire a gun in Kennedy's direction minutes later. Sirhan was immediately subdued by several men in the pantry as Kennedy fell to the floor fatally wounded. Sirhan has claimed that after having coffee with the woman, the next thing he can remember is being choked and unable to breathe moments after the Kennedy shooting, stating: "It's all vague now. I'm sure you all have it in your records. I can't deny it or confirm it. I just wish this whole thing had never taken place." Sirhan's parole was denied on the grounds that he had not expressed adequate remorse for his crime or acknowledged its severity.
...Kennedy had joined those who believe there was a second gunman, and that it was not Sirhan who killed his father.