Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

The Trial

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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 guilty.

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)
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 crime.

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 1966.

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 me!"

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 disgrace."

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 deadly weapon.

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 California.

 

 

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