Hardly A Headline

Sirhan Sirhan, the man who killed Sen. Robert Kennedy, was turned down for parole last week for the 13th time. But like a tree that falls unheard in the forest, little note was made of it. The man who changed U.S. history with a burst of gunfire wasn’t even there – the second time in a row he stiffed his own parole hearing. And this time no defense attorney was there to hear his graying client described as a continued risk to public safety. “Sirhan is very hostile,” Tip Kindel of the state parole board told reporters. “He hates Americans.”

Sirhan’s longtime attorney died last year after many attempts to get his client a new trial and Sirhan, who also skipped his last parole hearing in 2003, has yet to hire a new attorney. After Sirhan’s latest no-show hearing, curiously on the Ides of March, the parole board set his next shot at freedom for 2011.

Time has whittled down the enormity of Sirhan’s crime to little more than a historical footnote. But in 1968, when I covered his murder trial as an AP reporter in Los Angeles, Sirhan made headlines across the world.

Watching him in court all day, you could almost see his beard grow.

The swarthy young Jordanian sat quietly, sometimes grinning at the jury. In the morning, freshly shaved, wearing a dark suit, tie and clean white shirt, he would turn and wave to his mother and two brothers. He’d smile and mouth the words, “Hello” and “I’m okay.” But when court adjourned in late afternoon, a different man turned to wave goodbye to his family. His angular face, darkened by 5 o’clock shadow, was sullen, the smile gone.

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a Palestinian refugee, did not like lawyers probing his psyche in his Los Angeles trial for murdering Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a man who might have been president. This slight youth, who wanted to be a jockey until he lost his nerve in a riding accident, altered the destiny of the United States.

Before court and during brief recesses, I and one or two other reporters covering the trial chatted amiably with the defendant’s mother, Mrs. Mary Sirhan, who was accompanied most days by two of her other sons, Munir, 21, and Adel, 29, all residents of nearby Pasadena. Ground rules limited this access to small talk – no questions about the trial or the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

Mrs. Sirhan, 55, a tiny woman with graying hair tied in a neat bun, spoke in halting English. Yes, she felt fine today. No, the smog wasn’t too bad in Pasadena today, thanks to the Santa Ana winds. Yes, as usual, the morning drive-time traffic was terrible.

Munir and Adel, taller and huskier than their brother on trial, maintained a scowling silence. No one talked to them. It was Munir’s .22-caliber pistol that had killed Bobby Kennedy. Ironically, years later Adel would complain that a new book on the celebrated trial did not give sufficient credit to his role in it.

Sirhan, 24, shot Kennedy three times in a crowded kitchen at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel at 12:20 a.m. on June 5, 1968 – moments after the U.S. senator from New York claimed victory in the California Democratic presidential primary. Four other people were wounded. The senator’s election victory was the nation’s top story. Sirhan made it the world’s biggest story.

Kennedy, 42, died the next day at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Sirhan’s trial began seven months later. The prosecution claimed Sirhan shot the senator because Kennedy wanted to sell jet fighter planes to Israel. The defense sought to test a quirk in California law which recognized that a person may be legally sane, yet still not fully responsible for his actions. Lawyers called it, “diminished responsibility.”

Sirhan pleaded innocent, although in an angry outburst at one point during the trial, he admitted killing Kennedy, saying he did so “premeditatedly with 20 years of malice aforethought.” The defense argued that when he shot Kennedy, Sirhan was “an immature, emotionally disturbed and mentally ill youth.” But when a public school official testified that Sirhan had a sub-normal IQ of 89, the slender defendant became enraged and had to be forcibly restrained.

Chief defense attorney Grant B. Cooper, 65, pictured Sirhan as a youth fraught with conflicting personalities: “A good Sirhan and a bad Sirhan and the bad Sirhan is a nasty Sirhan.”

On April 17, 1969 the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Then the five women and seven men set about deciding Sirhan’s punishment. Six days later they returned with the final verdict – death in the California gas chamber.

Judge Herbert V. Walker could have reduced the sentence to life in prison. For Walker, 69, it was his last big case. And he had a letter from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., saying his brother “would not have wanted his death to be a cause for the taking of another life.” But Walker let the death sentence stand.

Sirhan shrugged. “The real battle has just begun,” he said.

He would spend only 3 years on death row. The California Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in 1972. Today, the silver-haired Sirhan, 64, is in California’s Corcoran State Prison, where he has claimed he has no memory of shooting Kennedy on June 5, 1968 – the first anniversary of the Six Day War.

Over the years, his defense attorneys have argued variously that Sirhan was hypnotized the night he shot Kennedy and fired blanks while someone else fired the fatal shots; that the prosecutors were blackmailed; and that he was framed by the “military-industrial complex” that didn’t agree with Kennedy’s promise to end the war in Vietnam.

Today the man who killed Bobby Kennedy is hardly a headline.

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12.7.2010 | Ann

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