Robert F. Kennedy lies wounded on the floor of the Ambassadore Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968.
Los Angeles: Just before Christmas, Robert F. Kennedy Jr pulled up to the massive Richard J. Donovan Correctional Center, a California state prison complex in the desert outside San Diego that holds nearly 4000 inmates. Kennedy was there to visit Sirhan B. Sirhan, the man convicted of killing his father, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, nearly 50 years ago.
While his wife, actress Cheryl Hines, waited in the car, Robert Kennedy Jr met with Sirhan for three hours. It was the culmination of months of research by Kennedy into the assassination, including speaking with witnesses and reading the autopsy and police reports.
"I got to a place where I had to see Sirhan," Kennedy said. He would not discuss the specifics of their conversation. But when it was over, Kennedy had joined those who believe there was a second gunman, and that it was not Sirhan who killed his father.
"I went there because I was curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence," said Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and the third oldest of his father's 11 children. "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."
Kennedy, 64, said he doesn't know if his involvement in the case will change anything. But he now supports the call for a re-investigation of the assassination led by Paul Schrade, who also was shot in the head as he walked behind Kennedy in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles but survived.
Robert Kennedy Jr says he was disturbed the wrong person may have been convicted of killing his father almost 50 years ago.
Kennedy was just 14 when he lost his father. Even now, people tell him how much Bobby Kennedy meant to them.
RFK's death – five years after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was gunned down in Dallas and two months after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was killed in Memphis – devastated a country already beset by chaos.
In 1968, the Vietnam War raged, American cities had erupted in riots after MLK's assassination and tensions between war protesters and supporters were growing uglier. Robert Kennedy's newly launched presidential bid had raised hopes that the New York Democrat and former attorney-general could somehow unite a divided nation. The gunshots fired that June night changed all that.
Though Sirhan admitted at his trial in 1969 that he shot Kennedy, he claimed from the start that he had no memory of doing so. And midway through Sirhan's trial, prosecutors provided his lawyers with an autopsy report that launched five decades of controversy: Kennedy was shot four times at point-blank range from behind, including the fatal shot behind his ear. But Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant, was standing in front of him.
New evidence has emerged over the years that Sirhan Sirhan, in white shirt, may have been subjected to coercive hynosis.
Was there a second gunman? The debate rages to this day.
But the legal system has not entertained doubts. A jury convicted Sirhan of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death in 1969, which was commuted to a life term in 1972. Sirhan's appeals have been rejected at every level, as recently as 2016, even with the courts considering new evidence that has emerged over the years that as many as 13 shots were fired – Sirhan's gun held only eight bullets – and that Sirhan may have been subjected to coercive hypnosis, a real life "Manchurian candidate."
His case is closed. His lawyers are now launching a longshot bid to have the Inter-American Court of Human Rights hold an evidentiary hearing, while Schrade is hoping for a group such as the Innocence Project to take on the case. A spokesman for the Innocence Project said they do not discuss cases at the consideration stage.
In the final court rejection of Sirhan's appeals, US Magistrate Judge Andrew Wistrich ruled, "Even if the second shooter's bullet was the one that killed Senator Kennedy, [Sirhan] would be liable [for murder] as an aider and abettor." And if Sirhan was unaware of the second shooter, Wistrich wrote that the scenario of a second gunman who shot Kennedy "at close range with the same type of gun and ammunition as [Sirhan] was using, but managed to escape the crowded room without notice of almost any of the roomful of witnesses, lacks any evidentiary support."
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