52 Years on: Sirhan May Not be Robert Kennedy's Killer

Published August 31st, 2021 - 07:26 GMT
Robert Kennedy, left, speaks at a rally in 1960 while Sirhan Sirhan is pictured in a California Corrections Department image from October 2009. Photo: AFP
Robert Kennedy, left, speaks at a rally in 1960 while Sirhan Sirhan is pictured in a California Corrections Department image from October 2009. Photo: AFP

If Sirhan Bishara Sirhan is released from his California jail cell this will be the best Christmas gift he will receive in quite some time. Because at 77 years old, and if he is lucky, he may just spend a few more years of his days as a free man in America.

Sirhan Sirhan spent the best part of his life – 52 years – locked up for a heinous crime he may/or may not have committed in the killing of Senator Robert Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on 5 May 1968.

Today he stands on parole, something he has been denied for the last 15 times in the past decades. Now, he has just 120 days for the State of California and its Governor to endorse his parole recommendation, free him from incarceration and let him breath fresh air outside jail.

The case of Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian refugee from Jerusalem who immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 with his family in 1956, raises more troubling questions than answers but these questions were conveniently stashed aside because he was in the right place at the right time, had motive – his dislike for Kennedy for supporting Israel and he had a revolver at the time of the gunning down of America’s most eligible high-flying politician who may well have become the next president of the United States.

Sirhan’s presence was enough to convict him regardless of what he may have been doing at the time and where he was. One year later in 1969, he began his long journey in prison.

This may have been the biggest ironical development in his life because he and his family sort of escaped to America, unwilling to endure the brutality of the onset of the Israeli occupation. Initially, he was given the death penalty but that was later changed to life in prison because of an amendment in the law.

Evidence later suggested the authorities may have got the wrong man. At that time, they were under pressure to convict, charge and imprison. But many believe there was serious problems in the investigation that should have been more thorough, meticulous and based on hard evidence related to the politics of America at the time and considering the fact US President John F. Kennedy was also assassinated in Dallas, Texas in 1963.

First problem: The three bullets that shot Kennedy at 15 minutes past midnight on that tragic early morning were fired from the back and one bullet passed through the shoulder of his suit coat. Witnesses state Sirhan was directly facing Kennedy at the time of the shooting. Thus there, had to be a second shooter and a second gun but this needed further investigation and was ignored.

Second problem: After listening carefully to the audio recording there were 13 shots fired at the time; this was five more than the eight-shot 22-caliber Iver Johnson revolver Sirhan had on him. This was also ignored, although admittedly the sound quality of the audio recording was deemed to be poor.

Third problem: Sirhan never remembered what had happened that night. He says he was too drunk and doesn’t recall the actual event other than drinking that night, going to a hotel, meeting a woman but nothing specific. There was conflicting evidence in his testimony however, because at one time in an interview with David Frost in 1989 he said, he did indeed kill Kennedy because of the support of the latter to Israel and the US sending of 50 phantom jets to that country.

But it gets complicated. At the recent parole hearing of Sirhan, two sons of the late senator Robert Jr and Douglas Kennedy believe that the authorities convicted the wrong person and Sirhan was innocent of the assassination; and that he should be set free. Robert Jr added this is what his late father would have wanted and became certain Sirhan didn’t shoot his father because of the level of remorse he showed while he visited him for the first time in prison.

Off course, the six other Kennedy siblings were abhorred that the authorities would even consider pardoning the man who killed their father and say he should in no way be freed because of the heinous crime that robbed them and America of that great man that he was and destined to be.

But both Robert Jr and Douglas Kennedy are supported by another man, who served as aid to the deceased Senator and was with him on that tragic night.  Paul Schrade, now 96, was one of other five with the Senator who was wounded but like the rest, it was not fatal. He believes Sirhan is innocent and the police got the wrong person and Sirhan should be freed because the “guy is not guilty” Schrade, a union leader who was then working for the New York Senator says.

He was also at his parole hearing in 2016, but then the parole members said Sirhan didn’t show enough remorse for a positive recommendation. All this has changed however. This time however, the two-persons parole hearing stated Sirhan was a reformed man attending more than 20 programs on self-help and anger management and that changes in the law allowed the parole board to consider his childhood trauma and his age.

Sirhan never became an American citizen but continued to have a Jordanian passport because when he left in the 1950s Jerusalem was still under Jordanian rule. And therefore many are asking if he should be freed would he then be deported to Jordan and become a lightening rod? But this seems unlikely mainly because of his age.

He says if he is freed he would go and live with his only living brother in Pasadena and has no interest in going to the Middle East or being involved in his politics. We wait the final decision. 

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