Sirhan Sirhan: The Forever Prisoner and Robert F. Kennedy’s Assassination. By Sherifa Zuhur

6 Jun

 

Most of the article below was published in Al Jazeera English‘s Opinion section on June 5th.  I haven’t blogged for a while, and so I thought I’d put the entire piece I wrote here.  This took me years to research.   Rose Lynn Mangan and Adel Sirhan explained certain details to me. Mangan who died in 2017, put her research online where it is still accessible.

Here is the AJ article:  https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/palestine-sirhan-sirhan-robert-kennedy-assassination-180605094446393.html

Sirhan Sirhan’s crime is one mired in the tragedy of Palestine. If the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy was a conspiracy extending beyond Sirhan, then we may speculate about a power struggle between key American political forces. Sirhan’s 50 years in prison are colored by the failures of the U.S. criminal justice system in which racial disparities are apparent. A poor young unconnected Palestinian was easily convicted, and accused of political fanaticism. Today, Sirhan would likely have been charged with terrorism.

His case may remind us of the many Palestinian prisoners confined for years in Israel’s jails, and that some are ‘forever prisoners.’   Sirhan Sirhan has been denied 15 times. He was originally scheduled for release in 1984. Now 74 years old, this forever prisoner has served longer in jail than any Palestinian prisoner in Israel including Nael Barghouti, who was imprisoned for 33 years, released and then re-imprisoned.

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was born on March 19, 1944 in Jerusalem, the fifth son of Christian Orthodox parents.   His father, Bishara, originally from Taybeh, worked for the British mandate government in Jerusalem’s water department, and his mother, Mary Muzher was from Bethlehem. Sirhan witnessed the bombing of Damascus Gate as a child, the death of his older brother, a man disemboweled by a bomb and other traumatic sights. In 1948, with Israel’s seizure of mandate and Arab properties, Sirhan’s father lost his job. The family had to move from Musrara to the Jordanian controlled area of East Jerusalem, where they shared a single room with 9 other families. They immigrated to the U.S. when Sirhan was 12, but his father returned to Palestine after a family dispute.

Sirhan had worked in several gas stations where two owners subsequently told the FBI he was an excellent worker, never made problems and never expressed any nationalist views. He attended horse races, was interested in becoming a jockey and was bright and completed two years of community college. He was fascinated with the idea of mind control. He also worked as an exercise boy at the Granja Vista Del Rio ranch, but was fired, after he fell from a horse and tried to collect insurance. He and his immigrant family were motivated to keep away from serious trouble, nor were they connected to any radical organizations. His sister Aida, married an American but came home to die at the age of 29 from leukemia in 1965.

Sirhan was not a gun person, but acquired a gun in March of 1968 “for target practice” from his brother when he asked him to find him one. He acted strangely in the days just prior to the assassination on June 5, 1968. He stated that he drove downtown that night because there was supposed to be an anniversary celebration of the Six Day War, but he had the wrong date. He stopped at the Ambassador Hotel, where he quickly drank four Tom Collins cocktails. Kennedy, who had won the California presidential primary elections, spoke in the main ballroom. In a change of previous security plans, he was guided to exit through the kitchen and pantry area. Kennedy was shaking busboy Jean Romero’s hand, when Sirhan, facing him, shot him. Five others were also hit and wounded: Paul Schrade, William Weisel, Ira Goldstein, Elizabeth Evans, and Irwin Stroll.

RFK had a small security detail. Congress did not authorize protection of presidential candidates until after his assassination. He wanted to be able to see and touch people, and he was reportedly averse to being spied on by the FBI. Two of his acting guards, Roosevelt Grier, a football player and Rafer Johnson, an Olympic star tackled Sirhan, and witnesses heard him say, “I can explain. I did it for my country.” An Ace security guard, Thane Eugene Cesar was standing behind RFK. There was also Bill Barry, an ex-FBI agent who had followed Kennedy into the kitchen pantry area, and two more Ace guards.

Numerous investigators and Sirhan’s later defense teams believe that a second shooter was involved. An audio recording made that night by a freelance reporter, Stanislaw Pruszynski revealed the sounds of up to thirteen bullets according to analysts and that there was insufficient time between certain firings for one weapon to have been used. Other details indicated that at least nine shots were fired.

Sirhan’s Cadet model Iver-Johnson .22 revolver had only eight bullets. Three bullets hit Kennedy, two remaining in his body and one tearing through his arm. A fourth bullet passed through his coat without injuring him. All three bullets traveled back to front, right to left, and upwards. The bullets remained in the bodies of the five others who were shot. It was claimed that the bullet that passed through Kennedy’s coat then made a U-turn and hit Schrade, standing behind Kennedy, in the head. There were three bullet holes in the ceiling and two bullets lodged in a door frame, which the LAPD destroyed, along with the ceiling tiles. I mention aspects of the evidence and ballistics because Sirhan’s researcher, Rose Lynn Mangan meticulously detailed these disparities and many others prior to her 2017 death.

According to the medical examiner and coroner, Thomas Noguchi, the bullet which impacted Kennedy behind his right ear was fired a distance of one inch, and no greater than two inches. Yet, according to witnesses, Sirhan was four to seven feet in front of him. Some held that he had turned his head at that moment and so Sirhan might have hit him. But it is problematic that Thane Eugene Cesar, the Ace security guard who stood behind Kennedy might have fired, indeed Don Schulman, an eyewitness was certain he had done so. Cesar claimed that he drew his weapon but that it was a .38 and it was never checked. In fact, he had owned a .22, which he claimed to have sold.

Sirhan’s attorneys William and Laurie Duseck maintain in a 2011 filing intended to lead to another appeal for Sirhan, that the bullet hitting Kennedy’s neck was not from Sirhan’s gun and the bullet in evidence was switched for another bullet. Not incidentally, William Pepper was the attorney for James Earl Ray in the trial for the murder of Martin Luther King and argues that a conspiracy took place then. Much earlier, criminalist Larry Baggett stated that the bullets hitting Kennedy and Wiesel were not fired by the same gun. The same was maintained by Professor Herbert McDonnell in a 1973 affidavit. Rose Lynn Mangan discovered many other anomalies, and mislabelings in the evidence, finding that the bullet that struck Kennedy in the neck, which should have read ‘TN31’ on its base, instead reads ‘DWTN.’ The LAPD seized all photographs taken at the scene by Scott Enyart as Sirhan was firing his gun. They returned only 20 percent of them, did not use them at trial. The photos went missing from the state archives. Enyart initiated a suit in 1996, but then the LAPD said they “found” the photographs. Enyart said they did not depict the events in the pantry, and then they were stolen prior to this civil trial.

Several witnesses claimed to have seen three persons entering, a woman in a polka dot dress with another man, and a man of Sirhan’s appearance and that afterwards she, with another man leaving the scene, was heard to have said “We got him. We killed Kennedy.” Then there was the claim that three CIA operatives were in the ballroom, named by filmmaker Shane O’Sullivan as David Sanchez Morales (El Gordo) who was supposed to be stationed in Laos, Gordon Campbell, both of whom had worked at the CIA base in Miami, JM-Wave, and George Joannides, chief of the psychological warfare operations at JM-Wave. Morales might have been motivated by what Cubans viewed as the Kennedy brothers’ betrayal in the Bay of Pigs incident.   But critics showed that Campbell was dead, and two Bulova salesmen were present, and others disputed Morales’ identification. Despite this possible red herring, Lisa Pease (she has a book coming out this year) has argued that CIA and FBI linked persons may have played a role in the cover-up of evidence tampering and failings in Sirhan’s first defense, and have been responsible for the assassination.

Sirhan claims to remember nothing, beyond parking, being led inside the hotel, being angry and drinking.   A clipping was found in his pocket which quoted Kennedy: “the United States should without delay sell Israel the 50 Phantom jets she has so long been promised.” More damning, a notebook was found in his home that contained repetitive scrawlings of “RFK must die.” His demeanor was, however, not of a drunk man. He refused to give his name, or any details when taken into custody, or even to speak in Arabic.

To Americans reading about the radical Palestinian political groups, which emerged in the wake of Black September 1970, it seemed a no-brainer that an Arab would become an assassin. As recently as May 24, 2018, an article in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper tried to characterize Sirhan as the first “lone wolf” killer. As someone who writes on terrorism, I’ve learned that most “lone wolves” are in fact not alone – they are assisted or instructed.

Sirhan’s notebook also contained a sentence that Kennedy must die by June 5th. It was suggested this was because it was the anniversary of the 1967 war, although the Sirhan family’s trauma and displacement was in 1948.   He and his defense and psychological experts have argued this writing and the shooting was done under hypnosis.   A version of how this might have been accomplished was fictionalized in Margaret Truman and Donald Bains’ murder Experiment in Murder, detailing the hypnosis and manipulation of a fictional Arab-American named Iskander Itani to murder a fictional U.S. president.

Why might others have wanted to kill Robert F. Kennedy? To prevent him from becoming president, perhaps ending the war in Vietnam sooner than occurred. Others held that he might succeed in uncovering who had killed his brother John. According to his own son, RFK had not supposedly accepted the official version of the JFK assassination.  He had expressed some suspicions of Lyndon B. Johnson’s involvement directly to Johnson. Many in the CIA felt that RFK had treated them unfairly. In any case, RFK’s death was a huge loss for the liberals and left in America, as he was charismatic, bore the Kennedy name, and had been expected to win the presidency and carry on his brother John’s legacy.   Due to Kennedy’s assassination, Hubert Humphrey ran for president and lost to Richard Nixon. That blocked any success in returning to the policies John Kennedy had initiated.

Sirhan’s testimony could not help him. Either he was political motivated or he was insane in the eyes of the public, except for those who began to believe that a conspiracy was at work. The idea of “diminished capacity” was too novel a concept in 1968. Furthermore many Americans didn’t understand Sirhan’s Palestinian identity, since many newspapers simply identified him as Jordanian. If they did know who the Palestinians were, they were unsympathetic.

Sirhan explained that he admired RFK, but felt betrayed by his staunch support of Israel and intent to send 50 bombers to Israel.   His defense attorneys argued that he had been hypnotized, and that due to his prior traumatic experiences, was not fully responsible due to diminished capacity. This defense was discounted. Some aspects of the evidence were never satisfactorily explained, and elements of the evidence were omitted or improperly recorded, or destroyed when controlled by the Special Unit Senator, rather than the Los Angeles Police Department.

Sirhan was sentenced to death in the gas chamber. However, the California Supreme Court ruled all capital cases to be a violation of California’s Constitution and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.   Sirhan was housed in San Quentin Prison. His brother, Adel and his mother would travel to San Francisco to see him and stayed with a Palestinian friend, who remembered Adel’s assertions, that Sirhan wasn’t responsible for the assassination, even though he opened fire. He was then transferred to CTF in Soledad until 1992, and then to the state prison in Corcoran.

While in he was in San Quentin, gunmen of the Black September group burst into the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum on March 1, 1973, and took ten hostages including the U.S. ambassador to the Sudan, Cleo A. Noel, and the Deputy Chief of Mission, George Curtis Moore, the Saudi ambassador, Shaykh Abdullah al-Malhouk, his wife and children, and the Belgian and Jordanian charges d’affairs to Sudan. First the militants demanded the release of some members of the Bader-Meinhoff gang and Sirhan Sirhan. Then they asked for the release of 90 Arabs being held by the Jordanian government, including Abu Daoud. President Nixon refused to negotiate and the gunmen killed their three Western hostages, before they were captured by Sudanese authorities. The U.S. believed that Yasir Arafat was part of the direction of this operation and the PLO gave the order to kill the three hostages. This incident obviously did nothing to help Sirhan with his legal efforts at a reversal, a new trial or his parole hearings. He also could not assist himself by showing remorse for his crime, as he claimed not to remember it.

Sirhan’s subsequent attorney, Larry Teeter argued that his first attorney, Grant Cooper had been compromised by a conflict of interest and Sirhan won the right to a new trial   Teeter tried to have the venue for this new trial moved to Fresno, California and this motion was denied. Meanwhile Sirhan’s brother, Adel who had handled his affairs, died in the spring of 2001.

After 9/11 Sirhan was bizarrely accused of some connection to the suicide bombers because he had suddenly shaved his head and acquired a television just two days before the attacks. His brother Munir explained to me that Sirhan was watching the television during the attacks and had covered his head with a towel, as he was cold. Apparently the guards were suspicious of his mail, and that he was reading the Qur’an. Although Christian, he was trying to retain his knowledge of the Arabic language. The warden placed special restrictions on him; he was questioned by the FBI, and was unable to see visitors for a long period.

Teeter died in 2005, and Sirhan had no counsel for some years.   In 2011, Sirhan’s defense team Pepper and Duseck filed a motion for a new trial based on evidentiary claims. These were supposed to include the testimony of Nina Rhodes-Hughes, a witness in the pantry, who said despite her claim that there were two shooters, the authorities altered her account.   Besides Ms. Rhodes-Hughes, there were four others who heard more than eight shots, and there were other problematic details in evidence. The U.S. District Court rejected this motion.

Sirhan had also shot Paul Schrade, a Kennedy confidante, the director of the United Auto Workers union, who recovered. At the age of 91, he testified at Sirhan’s 2016 parole hearing. He has long believed there was a second shooter. He called for Sirhan’s release and said “the evidence clearly shows that Sirhan Sirhan could not and did not shoot Senator Bob Kennedy,” but his testimony was disregarded by, and at one point, mocked by the parole commissioner

In October 2009, Sirhan was transferred to a solitary cell at Pleasant Valley State Prison and then moved back to Corcoran. He was then moved to the Richard J. Donovan prison in San Diego on November 22, 2013.   Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. met with him there, and he supports Schrade’s call for a reinvestigation of the assassination, as does his sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Sirhan’s father, mother, and brothers, except for one, have all died. When his mother was still alive, she prayed that he would be released, forgiven, she said, as in the Biblical story of the prodigal son. This small woman, whose only valuables on arrival to the U.S. were two mother-of-pearl brooches marked ‘Jerusalem,’ never saw that day. His brother Adel shared that the family never again celebrated Christmas after 1968; “what’s the point when your family member is in jail?” Unspoken was the word “forever.”

Perceptions of the RFK assassination are split between those who see evidence of a conspiracy and those who do not. The world has changed since 1968. There are far more who express empathy with Palestinians today. Sirhan has always articulated distress at his people’s treatment.

What Palestinian youth may think of Sirhan is another difficult question. It may be difficult for them to embrace his story as one of nationalist heroism when he denies any conscious knowledge of committing the assassination. They may quite well understand the radical period of Palestinian politics in which this case was framed, or not. Many Palestinian youth are thoroughly aware of the perversion of justice in Israel’s criminal system, and so, extending from that, they may understand Sirhan’s predicament.

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