The 16th time was the charm. We learned Friday that a California review board on Friday recommended that Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian refugee serving a life sentence for assassinating U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, be released from prison on parole. Sirhan has been denied parole on 15 previous occasions.
Many were surprised to read that Robert F. Kennedy’s son and namesake, RFK, Jr. supported the parole, but if you follow Kennedy, Jr. it came as no shock. In recent years, RFK, Jr., now 67, has embraced many other conspiracy theories. Why, he is such an outspoken anti-vaxxer that Instagram removed him from the platform last February, for continuously spreading vaccine misinformation.
Many of Kennedy, Jr.’s theories are so far-fetched and, in the case of vaccines, so harmful, that it’s hard not to question his sanity, when he presses his points with. uncomfortable repetition and obsessive ticks. Furthermore, he suffers from spasmodic dysphonia, which causes his voice muscles to spasm. If you listen to him without being aware of the condition, it contributes to the perception that he’s unstable.
Yet, in some respects, he’s quite brilliant. His investigation and efforts on behalf of his cousin, Michael Skakel, were supported by facts, interviews, police files, not wild ravings from a convicted murderer’s biased relative. No, Kennedy, Jr., who received his Bachelor of Arts from Harvard and his law degree from the University of Virginia, used analytical reasoning to explain not only why the justice system failed to find Michael Skakel guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but, instead, abused its power beyond a reasonable doubt.
Kennedy Jr.’s book Framed: Why Michael Skakel Spent Over a Decade in Prison for a Murder He Didn’t Commit makes such a compelling and concrete case exonerating Skakel that I wish he was my cousin, just in case I am ever falsely accused. Therefore, when the same man questions the facts that led to Sirhan Bishara Sirhan’s conviction in the 1968 killing of Robert F. Kennedy, Sr., I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Sirhan won parole last week, after more than 50 years in prison for RFK’s assassination. Robert and Ethel Kennedy had 11 children. Two of them (David and Michael) are deceased. Six of them have released a statement saying that they are devastated by Sirhan’s parole and will do everything they can to reverse the decision. The eldest RFK child, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has not spoken on the matter. The two outliers are Douglas Kennedy, the 10th RFK child, 54, who says that he not only has compassion for Sirhan, but feels love for him. Personally, I think a proclamation of love takes forgiveness and mercy a bit too far.
Then, there’s RFK, Jr. who penned a letter to the parole board Friday in support of Sirhan, after learning that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department opposed parole purportedly “on behalf of the Kennedy family.”
“Please know that that letter was not at the direction of the ‘family,’ and certainly not me,” Kennedy Jr. wrote. “As you may know, I have been a strong advocate for the release of Mr. Sirhan B. Sirhan since I learned of evidence that was not presented to the court during his trial.”
RFK was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June 1968, moments after celebrating his victory in California’s Democratic primary. He finished off a speech, “On to Chicago and let’s win there,” before being hit and falling to the floor where he lay with a pool of blood around his head. I moved to Los Angeles in 1987 and until the hotel was torn down in 2006, there is not a time that I drove past it without thinking of the events that allowed the shooting to occur.
So often in disasters like this, it’s not a question of “what went wrong.” No, in the macabre sense, so many weird circumstances and odd coincidences had to go right for tragedy to happen. A last minute change of plans, an unexpected delay, a detour through a kitchen, they seal a fate and change history. A perfect storm leads to endless pain.
Almost from the beginning, conspiracy theorists insisted that Sirhan could not have acted alone in killing RFK, even though the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI concluded that he had. Eerily echoing those that criticized the Warren investigation of the JFK assassination, a second gunman is also suspected in the President’s brother’s death. Witnesses at the Ambassador hotel that night say that a second gunman fired at RFK from behind, while Sirhan approached from in front of him.
The LAPD’s investigation was sloppy, especially for such a high profile murder. Critical evidence was destroyed and many question how it could have been lost by accident. Early investigators reported they had 1000s hours of taped interviews, but only 400 hours remain. Where’s the rest? The missing interviews include some from witnesses who were questioned about conspiracies to kill RFK.
Half of the photographs from the scene were destroyed, along with ceiling tiles and door frames that may have contained bullet holes and provided more information about bullet trajectories. Four people were shot in addition to Kennedy. The missing door frames and tiles could substantiate the belief that up to 13 shots were fired from two guns.
Sirhan initially said that he did act alone, angry because of RFK’s sympathy for Israel. The surviving police evidence includes a notebook that police say belonged to Sirhan containing scrawled statements in Sirhan’s handwriting that read incendiary things such as “Robert F. Kennedy must be killed.” Now, Sirhan says he has no memory of committing the crime, but told the parole board that he takes responsibility for it and has remorse.
The police files opened 20 years after the murder, show that investigators believed that a fatal bullet hit RFK, from no more than 3 inches from his head, but witnesses say that Sirhan was never that close to Kennedy. Unlike JFK’s assassination, RFK was not shot from a marksman yards away. When Robert Kennedy went down, Sirhan was quickly grabbed by RFK supporters, even before he stopped shooting. Football player Rosie Grier even wrested the gun from Sirhan. Sirhan never eluded anyone. He was not chased down. The witness accounts saying that he never got within 3 inches of RFK seem credible, because eyes were on him fairly quickly.
However, a second man with a gun, a security guard who stood behind Kennedy that night, was hardly questioned. His gun was not tested by ballistics and he was not given a lie detector test. Furthermore, the guard gave conflicting statements to police about owning a .22 caliber pistol, similar to the one that killed RFK. Moreover, there was evidence that the LAPD questioned some of their own findings but did not want to make their doubts known for fear of contradicting their Chief Ed Davis, who declared it to be an “open and shut murder case.” For instance, a 1974 memo, regarding a photograph of a bullet taken from RFK’s body being compared to a test firing from Sirhan’s gun, reveals the comparison photo was not admitted into evidence because the very existence of the photo would subject the detectives to criticism.
Then, there’s the most famous figure in the conspiracy theory: the girl in the polka dot dress. That pursuit centered on the search for a young woman in a white polka-dot dress who became a key person in solving RFK’s murder. Fernando Faura a reporter for the Hollywood Citizen News writes, “Seconds after the shooting stopped, a young woman in a polka-dot dress ran out of the kitchen, past Sandra Serrano, a Kennedy campaign worker. The woman shouted, ‘We shot him, we shot him.’ Asked whom they shot, the woman replied, ‘Kennedy,’ and ran away. She has never been seen since.
While the conspiracy theories have always existed, a young RFK, Jr. distanced himself from them. In 1975, he said that his family did not want to have his father’s murder case reopened. “It’s a painful thing for my entire family to see this whole thing opened and we’re satisfied with what was found. I think they ought to drop it.” In 2018, we learned that Kennedy, Jr. had had a change of heart.
Three years ago, Kennedy, Jr. told the Washington Post, that after conducting his own research, he now also believes there was a second gun and wants a new investigation. He also said that he visited Sirhan in December 2017. “I got to a place where I had to see Sirhan. I went there because I was curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence.”
I am open to the idea of a second gunman and would be interested in having Kennedy, Jr. lay out all of the facts that swayed him, as he did in the Skakel matter. As for Sirhan, I do not think there is any question that he shot at Kennedy, whether he delivered the fatal bullet or not. He may not have been the only gunman, but he was one of them. Knowing this, should he be released? It’s true that at 77 years of age, he would no longer be a threat to the public While I wouldn’t want to see him rewarded with attention and talk show invitations, following his release, if there is more information he can disclose about the shooting, maybe he’ll be more inclined to share it, outside of prison.
There is little doubt that had Sirhan’s victim been less famous, he would have been out on the streets by now, the way the California prison system works. Therefore, to deny him parole again would only serve a punitive purpose, not a rehabilitative one. Still, when I recall the pictures of the fallen RFK and his pregnant wife at the Ambassador Hotel that night, I still feel a bit punitive. I want to know what RFK, Jr. believes happened and I’m open-minded. Yet, I also support RFK, Jr.’s six siblings Kerry Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy II, Courtney Kennedy, Christopher G. Kennedy, Maxwell T. Kennedy and Rory Kennedy.
“As children of Robert F. Kennedy, we are devastated that the man who murdered our father has been recommended for parole. Our father’s death is a very difficult matter for us to discuss publicly and for the past many decades we have declined to engage directly in the parole process.”
“Given today’s unexpected recommendation by the California parole board after 15 previous decisions to deny release, we feel compelled to make our position clear. We adamantly oppose the parole and release of Sirhan Sirhan and are shocked by a ruling that we believe ignores the standards for parole of a confessed, first-degree murderer in the state of California. Our father’s death impacted our family in ways that can never adequately be articulated and today’s decision by a two-member parole board has inflicted enormous additional pain.”