Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, and his accused assassin Sirhan Sirhan has been serving a life sentence for the murder since a trial the following year. The 1969 trial failed to address, let alone resolve, serious questions regarding Sirhan's guilt - whether there were accomplices, whether he was even close enough to Kennedy to fire the fatal shot, and whether he was a programmed "Manchurian Candidate."
As part of a campaign to raise awareness of Sirhan Sirhan's case ahead of his next parole hearing on February 10 - see www.sirhanbsirhan.com for more information - Shane has supplied the Mary Ferrell Foundation with transcripts of his previous parole hearings, being published here for the first time. These transcripts illustrate some of the exonerating evidence, and show Sirhan's continuing dilemma - denied parole for failing to demonstrate sufficient remorse for a crime he has consistently said he doesn't remember committing.
Two weeks from today, Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Bobby Kennedy, will be considered for parole in San Diego. In March, Sirhan will turn 72 years old, having spent two-thirds of his life in prison for a crime he cannot remember committing. He has been an exemplary inmate, with no prison violations since 1972 and an excellent work record. In 1975, he was given a parole date in 1986, later brought forward two years for good behaviour. After ten days of hearings and intense political pressure, his parole date was rescinded in 1982 and he has since been denied thirteen times. I would argue that even if you believe Sirhan was guilty as charged, he has now served his time. If released, he would be deported to Jordan and would be a danger to nobody.
Today, in response to a Public Records Act request to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and with the support of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, we're publishing transcripts of all but one of Sirhan's subsequent parole hearings dating back to 1985, so the general public can read for themselves what passes for "due process" in this case in California. This new collection is part of a three-week campaign to raise awareness of Sirhan's case ahead of his parole hearing on February 10.
Since Sirhan's interview with David Frost for Inside Edition in 1989, recorded interviews with inmates have been banned in California, so parole hearings are his only chance to publicly state his case for release. Since the Frost interview, Sirhan has appeared in public five times, at hearings in 1989, 1990, 1994, 1997 and 2011. While Court TV covered the 1994 proceeding live, generally they get only the briefest mention on the news and the transcripts have never been available online before. The parole board in California recently banned audio and video recording of the hearings, censoring Sirhan's voice from the continuing debate about his case. At this rate, the public may never see or hear from him again.
Alongside the parole hearing transcripts, over the coming weeks, we will be publishing a new collection of court documents relating to the Habeas Corpus petition started by Sirhan's late attorney Larry Teeter in 1997, continued by Sirhan's current attorneys William Pepper and Laurie Dusek and ultimately denied by the Central District Court of California in January 2015 and now pending appeal.
These two new document collections are strongly linked. The parole board is obliged to accept Sirhan's first-degree murder conviction and has no power to retry the case. His denials repeatedly cite the "RFK must die" automatic writing in his notebooks as evidence of the cold, callous, premeditated nature of the crime, even though Sirhan has no memory of writing in the notebooks or the shooting itself. This sets a high bar for Sirhan's release that only a successful habeas corpus petition can overcome.
At the heart of the habeas petition are detailed declarations concerning two major new pieces of evidence developed over the last ten years that crystallise the second gun and Manchurian candidate theories that first emerged in the early seventies. Forensic audio expert Phil Van Praag documents his findings that at least thirteen shot sounds can be heard on the only known recording of the shooting; and a declaration by Dr. Daniel Brown of Harvard Medical School recounts his work over three years to recover Sirhan's memory of the shooting. He authenticates both Sirhan's amnesia and the hypnotic programming that generated the "RFK must die" repetitions in his notebooks and triggered the assassination.
So much evidence was suppressed at the original trial - with the complicity of Sirhan's own attorneys - I am convinced that Sirhan's conviction would never stand up in court today but last year, the Central District Court denied Sirhan even an evidentiary hearing to assess the merits of this new evidence.
And while the prison authorities are to be lauded for allowing Dr. Brown repeated access to Sirhan, it was completely perverse of the 2011 parole board panel to gloss over Dr Brown's validation of Sirhan's amnesia. In their judgement, they noted 'some degree of...distrust, quite frankly [in] you remembering parts of this and not remembering others.' Psychological reports are a core element of the evidence considered by the parole board but they showed absolutely no interest in Dr. Brown's report, claiming the gaps in Sirhan's memory show he still lacks remorse and has not accepted full responsibility for his crime. Why would Sirhan feign amnesia for 48 years in the knowledge that it's keeping him in prison?
The parole criteria present a number of Catch 22 scenarios for Sirhan. How can you show remorse and insight into the crime when you can't remember what happened or make sense of why you did it? How can you accept full responsibility for the crime when you're still contesting the case and the state's version of events has been superseded by new exculpatory evidence the court refuses to hear?
It's striking that when Sirhan feels he has some hope of parole, he makes a concerted attempt at rehabilitation. In the late seventies, while working towards his release date, he was a straight A student, going on to obtain an A.A. degree from Hartnell College. From 1989 to 1992, he was chairman of the Alcoholics Anonymous group in his unit, even though he's only touched alcohol a couple of times in his life. But self-help programming options have always been limited in his protective housing unit. When the AA meetings clashed with his prison work rotas, he had to drop them and as his relations with the parole board soured in the nineties, he openly questioned why he should jump through hoops for them when they show no sign of ever granting him parole?
The parole hearing transcripts collected here are of great value to researchers in charting Sirhan's life in prison over the last thirty years and the different styles and personalities of the dedicated attorneys who have represented him pro bono during this time - Luke McKissack, Sirhan's attorney from 1969 to 1994, Larry Teeter (1994-2006) and now, Pepper and Dusek. In form, the hearings are very similar:
- A statement of facts outlining Sirhan's original conviction
- A review of his social and criminal history before the life crime, which amounts to two traffic violations
- A review of the crime itself, including questions to Sirhan, if he chooses to answer them
- A review of the inmate's prison file - counseling reports and psychological evaluations since the last hearing; his work history and behaviour in prison; vocational and educational accomplishments; and involvement in self-help therapy programs.
- A review of his parole plans, if released - where he would live and how he would support himself
- Letters from the District Attorney and LAPD, who always oppose his release and letters from members of the public received ten days before the trial
- Closing statements by Sirhan and the deputy District Attorney
- And after a recess for deliberation, the decision of the panel.
For anyone with a good knowledge of the case, they make disturbing reading and cast the California justice system in a harsh, repressive light. Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Trapp was the guiding hand behind the 1982 rescission hearings and an ever-present at Sirhan's parole hearings in the eighties and nineties. But as William Klaber notes in his book, Shadow Play (St. Martin's Press, 1997), the D.A.'s man made schoolboy errors, repeatedly claiming Sirhan began to plot Kennedy's death on January 31, 1968, based on automatic writing Sirhan produced under hypnosis eight months after the shooting in preparation for trial.
The long shadow of the infamous 1985 hearing - when the assembled press accidentally listened in to a jokey three-minute deliberation and heard a member of the parole board discuss transferring Sirhan to another prison and say, "we'll send his ass down there for as long as possible" - still hangs over the subsequent hearings in the late eighties. The legal counsel and one of the commissioners involved in 1985 returned to hear to hear Sirhan's case four years later. Luke McKissack was incredulous but his objections were overruled. He cuts an exasperated figure in these transcripts, struggling to reconcile why, after twenty-odd years in prison, his client is still not being paroled. Little did he know that almost thirty years later, Sirhan would still be inside.
In 1992, the prison guards told Sirhan he had to wear chains and manacles in the hearing room, so both he and his attorney refused to attend and the hearing transcript could not be found by CDCR. By 1994, Larry Teeter had taken over as Sirhan's attorney and his Habeas Corpus Petition was filed two days after the 1997 hearing. The hearing itself marked the first time Sirhan claimed innocence of the shooting, based on the new exculpatory evidence in Teeter's petition. The Commissioner almost threw Teeter out of the hearing when he skillfully tried to apply some of this new evidence to Sirhan's parole criteria.
Sirhan was left fuming that his attorney had been repeatedly told to shut up and subsequently refused to cooperate with the parole board or attend his next three hearings. Then, a month after 9-11, the Washington Post published the following scurrilous leak from the California prison system in its 'Reliable Source' column:
The Post's Petula Dvorak reports that prison authorities in California wonder why Robert F. Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan shaved his head and requested a television on Sunday, Sept. 9, two days before the terrorist attacks. "These are unusual requests for him; he is usually pretty much isolated and reclusive," prison spokesman Lt. Johnny Castro told Dvorak. The 57-year-old Palestinian immigrant...frequently mails letters to outsiders, and the FBI is probing whether Sirhan's letters were not monitored because they were written in Arabic. But Sirhan lawyer Lawrence Teeter said his client "was outraged at the terrorist attacks and remarked spontaneously in a letter to his brother he hopes that the people who did this are burning in Hell."
According to Sirhan's brother Munir, the truth was that a departing prisoner had given Sirhan his television two days before 9-11 and when the prison guards later saw Sirhan watching 9-11 coverage with a towel on his head after a shower, they put two and two together and branded him an Arab terrorist who had foreknowledge of the attacks.
Prison spokesperson Sabrina Johnson later confirmed they had "documentation" to show that Sirhan was a threat, and he was disciplined accordingly. According to Sirhan's brother Munir, this meant "he was thrown into solitary confinement for the next year until we were finally able to prove he was innocent of their claims and get him out. He was allowed out of his cell, I think it was seven minutes twice a week to shower, and he was shackled, hands and legs."
This outrageous treatment had a profound effect on Sirhan's welfare in prison. He stopped cooperating with the parole board and according to psychological reports, became increasingly withdrawn. These reports regularly describe Sirhan as having a personality disorder based on "narcissistic and paranoid features" but who wouldn't given such brutal treatment?
I found the parole transcripts fascinating reading and I hope their release here with the recent court documents will lead to a renewed debate on Sirhan's case while he's still alive. As The Marshall Project recently discovered in a year-long examination of America's parole boards, parole board decisions are often driven not by public safety but by politics. Since 1982, California has treated him like a political prisoner who will never be released, not a human being who has served his time and has the right to a fair hearing and the rule of law.
I recommend William Klaber's book Shadow Play for an overview of the case's legal history and my own book Who Killed Bobby? (Union Square Press, 2008) for an overview of the case in general. I'd also like to pay tribute to two notable authors on the case who died last year - defense investigator Robert Blair Kaiser, who worked closely with Sirhan before the trial and always believed he was a Manchurian Candidate and provided a declaration in support of the Habeas Petition; and ex-FBI agent William Turner, who also helped prepare the ground for Dr. Brown's work with Sirhan.
Please follow our campaign on www.sirhanbsirhan.com, where transcripts of Sirhan's earlier parole hearings are available, alongside a range of other research material still pertinent to his case.
Dr. Shane O'Sullivan is an author, filmmaker and researcher at Kingston University, London. His work includes the documentary RFK Must Die (2007) and the book Who Killed Bobby? (2008).