The trial finally commenced on 7th January 1969 in the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles, but was almost a non-starter, when the defence offered to plead Sirhan guilty in exchange for life imprisonment, rather than risk him facing the death penalty. Given the complications and uncertainties surrounding the case, the prosecution were inclined to accept the plea bargain, but the presiding Judge was mindful of the political ramifications, and accusations of conspiracy, and insisted that the trial proceed as planned. The case lasted fifteen weeks, and prosecutors presented the physical evidence found at Sirhan’s home, and a mountain of forensic evidence, while the defence offered evidence about his abuse at the hands of his father, and his generally unstable life, as mitigating factors in the crime.
“Sirhan was incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison in California to await his execution.”
When Sirhan took the stand in his own defence, he claimed to remember nothing at all about the night of the assassination, but admitted that he might have been temporarily insane. There was discussion of his motivations for killing Kennedy, namely his pro-Israeli political stance, but the chronology of public statement was at odds with the evidence in his notebook. Sirhan appeared to have recorded anti-Kennedy statements prior to the dates of Kennedy’s public speeches, which Sirhan claimed were the motivation behind the assassination.
Despite these inconsistencies, the jury returned a guilty verdict on 17th April 1969. Sentencing was postponed until 21st May 1969, when Sirhan was sentenced to death in the gas chamber.
Sirhan was incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison in California to await his execution. Along with all other death row prisoners, Sirhan’s death sentence was commuted to a life sentence in 1972, when the United States abolished capital punishment.
Sirhan was denied parole in 1997. In 1998, on the 30th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, Sirhan sought a new trial on the basis that he had been acting under hypnosis at the time of the killing. He was not successful. A further parole appeal was denied in 2000, and it is likely that, despite being a model prisoner, Sirhan will spend the rest of his life in jail.
Despite the best efforts of the SUS task force, their attempts to quell rumours of conspiracy were unsuccessful from the outset. While it was clear that Sirhan had indeed been present at the scene, and had certainly fired shots, the possibility of a second gunman emerged as eyewitness accounts diverged from the official line taken by the enquiry.
The second gunman scenario first came to light when it became clear that four shots had been fired at Kennedy, and that a further five individuals had been wounded, totalling nine separate incidents, from an eight-shot weapon. The authorities countered these concerns by releasing a detailed analysis of the trajectory of each of the eight bullets that had been fired, which showed that some bullets had caused more than one wound. The Los Angeles Coroner, Dr Thomas Noguchi, a respected forensic expert, later refuted this analysis, claiming that it was impossible to compile an accurate trajectory analysis with any degree of certainty.
Interestingly, this trajectory analysis, which emphasized the identification of all shots fired, was again called into question some time after Sirhan’s trial, when it was discovered that a doorframe, which eyewitnesses recalled had contained bullet holes, was removed from the scene by investigators, yet was never pursued as a valid line of investigation. These bullet holes, if proven to be linked to the crime, would have increased the total number of shots fired beyond the eight in the trajectory analysis, and the eight maximum possible shots of Sirhan’s weapon, proving conclusively the presence of a second gunman.
When the missing doorframe came to light, authorities claimed that the marks on the doorframe had been X-rayed, and discounted as irrelevant, despite the beliefs of those at the crime scene, including coroner Noguchi, that they were definitely bullet marks. When pressed to provide the doorframe, the authorities claimed that it had been destroyed. When asked about the X-rays taken, it appeared that these too had been destroyed. The district attorney’s office refused to pursue an investigation, claiming that it would only serve to confuse the public, especially as Sirhan had already been successfully prosecuted.
When official records were released 20 years after the crime, in April 1988, there were no references to either the doorframe or the X-rays. All records relating to the testimony of the forensic experts who had attended the crime scene had similarly disappeared.
The most difficult forensic anomaly of all to assimilate was the site of the fatal wound on Kennedy’s head. It was located behind his right ear, yet all eyewitnesses claimed that Kennedy had faced Sirhan at all times during the ordeal. In addition, the trace evidence around the wound appeared to indicate that he had been shot from very close range, a few inches at most, whilst Sirhan had never been within three feet of Kennedy. Noguchi also added to the speculation in this regard, making it clear that he would never be able to state, certainly, on the basis of the evidence available to him, that Sirhan had fired the shot that killed Kennedy. Despite these uncertainties, the authorities claimed that none of the eyewitnesses were in a position to know exactly what had transpired during the chaos that followed the shots, and that Kennedy must have turned, unseen, taking the bullet to the back of his head.
The alternative scenario for the rear-entry head wound was that someone situated very close to Kennedy, but behind him at the time, could have fired the shot that killed him. Cesar, the private security guard, was the only person who fit the bill. He was discovered to have anti-Democrat political sentiments, and there were claims from an eyewitness that Cesar’s gun, a .38 calibre, had been smoking during the attack, although Cesar denied having fired any shots. Under interrogation, he also admitted once owning a .22 handgun, but claimed to have sold it prior to the Kennedy incident. This later turned out not to be true; he sold it three months after the killing. At the time he was questioned he impressed the investigators with his honesty, and successfully passed a lie-detector test, so was never pursued as a viable suspect.
Theories also exist in respect of other possible co-conspirators. There were three individual, and independent, eyewitness accounts, including one from a police officer named Paul Sharaga, of a girl in a white polka-dot dress having been seen talking to Sirhan immediately before the shooting, and then leaving the crime scene laughing, along with an unknown male, but these were never pursued as credible lines of enquiry. Two of these witnesses stated that they had later been coerced, by investigators, into withdrawing the claims. Officer Sharaga, meanwhile, claimed that his superiors withdrew his statement without his knowledge. The investigating team chose to stick with the accepted, single-assailant theory.
Less credible theories point to the participation of the mafia in the assassination of both Kennedy brothers. Speculation has always existed about a deal between Joseph Kennedy and the mafia, specifically Sam Giancana, to provide union votes to secure the Presidency for John F Kennedy. Giancana had expected political consideration for his assistance, and was enraged when Robert Kennedy launched a high profile attack on organised crime from within JFK’s administration, organising the assassination of both Kennedy brothers in retaliation. Yet others believe that Jimmy Hoffa might have ordered Robert Kennedy’s assassination, as he had been responsible for Hoffa’s prosecution during the same campaign against organised crime, and Hoffa made threats against Kennedy whilst in prison.
The investigation of Sirhan revealed an unhappy childhood, erratic employment history and changing religious allegiances, but no discernible political conviction beyond the anti-Kennedy sentiments found in his personal notebooks. This led to some speculation about the possibility of Sirhan having been hypnotised or brainwashed, which was given further credence by his eerie calm during the commission of the clam, described by several eyewitnesses, and his confused demeanour after his arrest. This possibility was never explored by the investigation, but was raised by Sirhan at his trial, and later in prison. Sirhan made the same claim again in 1998, on the 30th anniversary of Kennedy’s death.