Assassin maintains he can't remember shooting Robert Kennedy
More than four decades after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, his convicted murderer wants to go free for a crime he says he can't remember.
It is not old age or some memory-snatching disease that has erased an act Sirhan Bishara Sirhan once said he committed "with 20 years of malice aforethought." It's been this way almost from the beginning. Hypnotists and psychologists, lawyers and investigators have tried to jog his memory with no useful result.
Now a new lawyer is on the case and he says his efforts have also failed.
"There is no doubt he does not remember the critical events," said William F. Pepper, the attorney who will argue for Sirhan's parole Wednesday. "He is not feigning it. It's not an act. He does not remember it."
Sirhan may not remember much about the night of June 4, 1968, but the world remembers.
They have heard how Sirhan was grabbed as he emptied a pistol in the crowded kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles where Kennedy stood moments after claiming victory in the California presidential primary. They heard how he kept firing even as his hand was pinned to a table. They heard how Kennedy, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was shot and died, changing the course of American history.
Parole Board members are bound to review those facts, but they won't consider the many conspiracy theories floated over the years.
Pepper, a New York-based lawyer who also is a British barrister, is the latest advocate of a second gunman theory. Believers claim 13 shots were fired while Sirhan's gun held only eight bullets and that the fatal shot appeared to come from behind Kennedy while Sirhan faced him.
Pepper also suggests Sirhan was "hypno-programmed," turning him into a virtual "Manchurian Candidate," acting robot-like at the behest of evil forces who then wiped his memory clean. It's the stuff of science fiction and Hollywood movies, but some believe it is the key.
How Pepper plans to use any of this to his client's advantage remains to be seen because it will have little bearing on the decision of the panel that must determine if Sirhan is suitable for parole. The board is not being asked to retry the case and lawyers may not present evidence relating to guilt or innocence.
At issue is whether Sirhan, 66, remains a threat to others or to himself, whether he has accepted responsibility for the crime and expressed adequate remorse and whether he has an acceptable parole plan if he is released.
His lack of memory makes expressions of remorse and accepting responsibility difficult.
Sirhan could address that if he speaks at the hearing at Pleasant Valley men's prison in Coalinga. Whether he'll do that is uncertain. He has rarely commented during 13 past parole hearings and sometimes hasn't shown up at all.
Pepper said in an interview with The Associated Press that he has had Sirhan examined several times by psychologist Daniel Brown of Harvard University, an expert in hypnosis of trauma victims. He will not disclose exactly what was accomplished in the sessions but said, "There have been substantial breakthroughs."
Pepper said he may have more to say after the hearing.
"It was very clear to me that this guy did not kill Bob Kennedy," said Pepper.
Asked who did kill the senator, he said, "I believe I have it but I'm not going to deal with it at this time."
In one of many emotional outbursts during his trial, Sirhan blurted out that he had committed the crime "with 20 years of malice aforethought," a statement that could now come back to haunt him. That and his declaration when arrested: "I did it for my country" were his only relevant comments before he said he didn't remember shooting Kennedy.
Public opinion could be an invisible force in the board's decision.
If Sirhan is released, he would be the first imprisoned political assassin to win parole in this country. James Earl Ray, convicted of killing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jack Ruby, convicted of killing John F. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, both died in prison.
Sirhan was originally sentenced to death over objections by Kennedy family members who said they wanted no more killing. The sentence was commuted to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court briefly outlawed the death penalty in 1972.
Kennedy's son Maxwell, who has spoken for the family previously, did not return phone calls from the AP regarding Sirhan.
The lawyer notes that he has a personal tie to Kennedy, having been chairman of his citizens' committee when he ran for Senate in 1964.
Pepper also represented James Earl Ray, through 10 years of appeals and a civil trial which he said proved that Ray was not King's killer. By then Ray was dead.
David Dahle, head Los Angeles deputy district attorney for parole candidates serving life sentences, said his remarks at the hearing will depend on what is presented by the defense.
"At this point, I am skeptical that I will see something that will cause me to not oppose the grant of parole," he said.
Few high profile prisoners have been released in the California system. Charles Manson and his followers have been repeatedly turned down for parole. Manson follower Susan Atkins attended her final parole hearing on a gurney dying of cancer but was denied release and died in prison three weeks ago.