Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. He was mortally wounded just after midnight on June 5, 1968, in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Moments before entering the kitchen, Kennedy had given a victory speech after winning the California Democratic primary for President of the United States.
Kennedy was being ushered through the hotel kitchen by a group of campaign volunteers. Suddenly, he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a young man angered over Kennedy’s pro-Israeli position.
Less than five years earlier, Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy, was struck down by an assassin’s bullet and only two months earlier civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis, Tennessee, by an assassin.
Sirhan was convicted 10 months later — within a week of his conviction, he was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1972 after the California Supreme Court vacated all pending death sentences.
Sirhan remains in a California prison and has been denied parole 15 times, most recently in 2016. Parole commissioners concluded, after more than three hours of testimony, that Sirhan did not show adequate remorse or understand the enormity of his crime.
Why the lack of remorse? A half century after the assassination, Sirhan and his lawyers are still dreaming up ways to get him out of prison.
In 2011, his lawyers came up with a new plan for his release that read like the plot of a Hollywood movie.
Although Sirhan’s conviction occurred more than four decades prior, he asked the court to review his conviction through a Writ of Habeas Corpus. His direct appeal rights have long been exhausted but habeas corpus provided the opportunity to challenge a conviction as the result of newly discovered evidence.
Sirhan’s lawyers hired memory expert Daniel Brown, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Brown suggested hypno-programming caused Sirhan to repeatedly write that “RFK must die” in his notebooks and triggered the assassination.
Brown interviewed Sirhan for 60 hours over a three-year period. Sirhan believed that when he fired his shots in the hotel kitchen he was at a gun range, shooting at circular targets, reported CNN.
Sirhan’s lawyers believed he was programmed to cause a distraction in the kitchen, allowing a second gunman to secretly shoot Kennedy from behind. Lawyers argued that Professor Brown believed a mysterious young woman in a polka-dot dress lured Sirhan into the kitchen as part of a mind-control plot.
Sirhan’s claims of hypno-programming and assassination might make for an action-packed Hollywood thriller — if it hadn’t already been written, produced and premiered more than six years before Kennedy’s murder. “The Manchurian Candidate” released by MGM in 1962, starred Frank Sinatra and portrayed a supposed war hero who was brainwashed into becoming an unwitting assassin.
In January 2015, the Central District Court of California denied Sirhan’s claims, refusing to even grant him an evidentiary hearing to assess the merits of this new testimony.
Robert F. Kennedy was laid to rest on June 8, 1968. Senator Ted Kennedy eulogized Robert Kennedy in one of America’s most memorable tributes. “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; but to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. For those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.”
That prayer continues today.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.