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Sirhan Bishara Sirhan Trial: 1969 - A Murder Plan, Cynical Performance, Suggestions For Further Reading

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972

Defendant: Sirhan Bishara Sirhan
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Grant Cooper, Russell Parsons, Emile Berman, and Michael A. McCowan
Chief Prosecutors: Lynn D. Compton, John Howard, and David Fitts
Judge: Herbert V. Walker
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trial: January
1 3—
April 23, 1969
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death, later commuted to life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The stature and prominence of Robert Kennedy guaranteed that the trial of his killer, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, would be of historic importance. And yet, had it been left to the prosecution and defense attorneys, there would have been no trial at all. Their negotiated plea bargain failed because a judge decided that full disclosure mattered more than legal expediency.

Flushed with triumph, Senator Robert Kennedy stepped down from the podium at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, having just claimed victory in the California primary election. He was seemingly destined for the White House in November. As he moved through the crowded hotel kitchen, on his way to meet reporters in another room, a young man emerged from the throng and began firing an eight-shot Iver-Johnson. 22-caliber pistol. Three bullets struck Kennedy, one in the head. The gunman continued shooting, injuring five bystanders, until he was subdued and taken into custody. His name was Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Jordanian incensed by Kennedy's support of Israel. The next day the senator died from his wounds.

That Sirhan murdered Robert Kennedy was beyond dispute—a roomful of witnesses saw him do it—but many doubted that the diminutive Arab would ever stand trial. District Attorney Evelle Younger, armed with a psychiatric evaluation of Sirhan that provided clear indications of mental disorder, readily accepted the defense plea of guilty to first-degree murder in return for a promise of life imprisonment. It was the kind of deal worked out daily in the county court system, vital if the system is to avoid legal gridlock. But this was not an everyday case.

Dominating all else was the specter of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. The alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had himself been gunned down before standing trial, leaving forever a labyrinth of doubt and suspicion. Determined to avoid such a recurrence, the judge appointed to try the Sirhan case, Herbert Walker, rejected the plea bargain in favor of trial by jury. This ruling left the defense with no alternative but to plead Sirhan not guilty and hope that they could prove his mental insufficiency.

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