This June 1968 file photo shows Sirhan Sirhan, right, then the accused assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, with his attorney Russell E. Parsons in Los Angeles.
This June 1968 file photo shows Sirhan Sirhan, right, then the accused assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, with his attorney Russell E. Parsons in Los Angeles. Image Credit: AP

Damascus: On August 27, a parole hearing will take place outside a San Diego prison for the release of Sirhan Sirhan, the 77-year old Palestinian citizen who shot and killed Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) back in 1968. Few people remember his name, and those who do believe that he died in jail many years ago.

Friday’s hearing will be the 16th time that Sirhan appeals for release from prison, as some have started questioning whether he was the only person involved in the Kennedy assassination, and should have remained in prison for 53 years.

Robert Kennedy was 43 when he was shot four times at point-blank at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, 15 minutes past midnight on June 5, 1968. He had just finished addressing supporters after winning the California primaries, and exited the building through its kitchen, where awaiting him was Sirhan Sirhan, then a 25-year Palestinian from Jerusalem who had emigrated with his family to the United States during the 1950s.

The declared reason for Sirhan’s act was Kennedy’s support for Israel, something that troubled the Palestinians as Kennedy was running to become the next US president. Elections were due to be held on November 5, 1968 and Sirhan shot Kennedy on the first anniversary of the Six-Day War with Israel.

In this June 5, 1968 file photo, Senator Robert F. Kennedy is seen as he lies on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot.
In this June 5, 1968 file photo, Senator Robert F. Kennedy is seen as he lies on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot. Image Credit: AP

Americans nostalgically remember him as the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy, who affectionately called him “Bobby”. The two men ruled America in the early 1960s, with JFK at the Oval Office and Bobby serving as Attorney General during the Kennedy administration, until 1964, after which he was elected as a senator for New York.

That decade then witnessed four deadly assassinations that left a permanent scare in the collective psyche of the American nation: President Kennedy in November 1963, Malcolm X in February 1965, Martin Luther King in April 1968, followed by Bobby Kennedy in June in 1968.

Black book of US history

As for Sirhan Sirhan, he was given what seemed to be a permanent place in the black book of US history, next to criminals like Lee Harvey Oswald, who had famously shot his brother in Dallas. JFK’s assassin was gunned down by nightclub owner Jack Ruby in late November 1963, while RFK’s killer was sentenced to death by gas chamber, from which he was saved by a 1976 abolishment of the death penalty in California. He was resentenced to life in prison.

According to his lawyer Angela Berry, Sirhan has had a clean prison record. She points to his young age at the time, and to his remorse, adding that there is an unlikely chance of reoffending when/if released. If he is set free, Sirhan would be automatically deported to Jordan, the country from which he arrived to the US more than half a century ago. He would be ineligible to stay in the US because at the time of the murder, he hadn’t obtained US citizenship.

Position of the Kennedys

“It is unlikely that he will be released,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Centre of Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University. Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “Robert Kennedy was much loved by Americans, and the Kennedy family has assumed a status close to royalty.”

Yet even among the Kennedys, some are questioning whether Sirhan Sirhan was the real and only murderer of RFK. One of them is his son Robert Kennedy Jr, who visited Sirhan in jail back in 2017. He was then quoted saying: “I went there because I was curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence. I was disturbed that the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father. My father was the chief law enforcement officer in this country. I think it would have disturbed him if somebody was put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.”

Sirhan Sirhan
Sirhan Sirhan Image Credit: AP

His sister Kathleen Kennedy seems to agree, supporting her brother’s call for a reinvestigation of their father’s murder. When the verdict was passed in 1969, Bobby’s brother Senator Edward Kennedy wrote a letter to the persecutor asking that Sirhan’s life be spared. Kennedy said: “My brother was a man of love and sentiment and compassion. He would not have wanted his death to be a cause for the taking of another life.”

Another person rooting in favour of Sirhan is Paul Schrade, a close friend of Bobby who was wounded with him at the Ambassador Hotel back in 1968. He is now 96 and has long supported a theory saying that there was a second gunman in the room, who was never identified. “He’s not the guilty one,” Schrade said of Sirhan. “The important thing is to get him out, and then identify the second gunman.”

Official forensic evidence did leave the door open for the possibility of a second shooter, but investigators never seriously pursued that theory. They didn’t have to since Sirhan Sirhan was already in custody with a gun in his hand and a kitchen full of witnesses.

“I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories and I do not know for sure whether somebody else fired the deadly shots,” said Hilal Khashan, veteran professor of political science at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “What I know from his psychiatrist’s evaluation is that Sirhan is paranoid schizophrenic. This assessment would be sufficient to set him free after 53 years behind bars.”