Sirhan Sirhan and the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

Sirhan Sirhan arrested at Ambassador Hotel Moments After Shooting Robert F. Kennedy on June 5 1968
Sirhan Sirhan, taken into custody just moments after shooting Senator Robert F. Kennedy and five others at the Ambassador Hotel In LA on June 5, 1968.

Sirhan Sirhan (b. 1944) is a Palestinian who shot and killed Robert F. Kennedy and wounded five others at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. He stood trial and was sentenced to the death penalty, but his sentence was converted to life imprisonment when California declared the death penalty unconstitutional. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has suggested that he believes Sirhan did not act alone.

Fast Facts: Sirhan Sirhan

  • Known For: Assassin of Senator Robert F. Kennedy
  • Born: March 19, 1944 in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine
  • Education: Pasadena City College (no degree)
  • Sentence: Life imprisonment

Early Life

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was born to an Arab-Christian family in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine on March 19, 1944. His childhood was shaped by the Arab-Israeli violence surrounding the birth of Israel in 1948. An older brother was killed by a military vehicle fleeing sniper fire. His father, Bishara, was embittered by unemployment and dislocation to Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and became abusive to his wife and children.

The Sirhans emigrated to the United States in 1957 and settled in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena when Sirhan was about 12. Not long after, Bishara abandoned the family and returned to Jordan.

Sirhan struggled in school before graduating in 1963, at which point he embarked on a series of odd jobs. His dream was to become a jockey. Standing just over five feet tall and weighing only 115 pounds, he had the right build, but despite intense training, he proved to be a poor rider. During a training session in 1966, he was thrown from his mount and knocked unconscious, ending his career before it even started.

"Kennedy Must Die"

Family and friends later noted that Sirhan was much more prone to anger following his concussion. He had never been political, but by the end of 1967, he had grown obsessed with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Six-Day War in June of that year.

Notebooks found by investigators seemed to show that Sirhan fixated on Senator Robert Kennedy’s support for Israel. After Kennedy promised in a May 1968 campaign speech to send fifty fighter jets to Israel if he were elected, Sirhan wrote in a notebook that “Kennedy must die before June 5th," the first anniversary of the Six-Day War.

Assassination of Robert Kennedy

Kennedy was scheduled to be in Los Angeles on the night of June 4, 1968 for the state’s Democratic primary.

Sirhan spent part of the day at a shooting range, practicing with his .22 caliber Iver-Johnson Cadet revolver. In the evening, he began to case the Ambassador Hotel, quickly assessing that Kennedy would pass through the kitchen behind the ballroom where he would deliver his victory speech. Sirhan tucked himself in a corner of the kitchen and waited.

At around 12:15 am on June 5, Kennedy and his entourage entered the kitchen and began to greet the staff. Sirhan stepped out and opened fire, hitting Kennedy once in the head and twice in the back.

Before he was tackled by bystanders, Sirhan managed to empty his weapon, striking United Auto Workers official Paul Schrade, ABC News unit manager William Weisel, reporter Ira Goldstein, campaign volunteer Irwin Stoll, and Kennedy fan Elizabeth Evans. All five survived.

Kennedy was rushed into emergency surgery nearby Good Samaritan Hospital, but the damage to his brain was too extensive. He died 26 hours later at 1:44 am on June 6, 1968.

Aftermath and Trial

Sirhan was arrested at the scene and confessed to the shooting. With his guilt not at issue, his defense team worked with prosecutors on a plea agreement that would spare the 24-year old the death penalty.

Judge Herbert Walker rejected the plea deal. Lee Harvey Oswald had been killed before he could stand trial for the murder of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, sowing doubts about the events surrounding the assassination. He was determined that Sirhan should face a trial by jury.  

The trial lasted from February 12 to April 23, 1969 and was marked throughout by Sirhan bizarre behavior and frequent outbursts. At one point, he demanded Walker remove his attorneys and accept his guilty pleas.

“What do you want to do about the penalty?” Walker asked.

“I will ask to be executed,” Sirhan replied.

Walker denied the request.

In the end, both Sirhan and his defense team showed he was a disturbed young man prone to fits of rage and memory lapses. The prosecution showed he was capable of planning and carrying out a murder. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death.

Behind Bars

Sirhan was taken to San Quentin to await execution, but less than two years into his sentence, the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional and his sentence was converted to life imprisonment.

Over the past 46 years, Sirhan has argued that he was drunk on the night of the assassination and didn’t realize what he was doing, that he had been brainwashed by others to commit the murder, and that he was acting under the influence of hypnosis. His legal team has been unable to get him a new trial to examine what they say is evidence he was the victim of a conspiracy. He’s also been denied parole more than a dozen times.

Since 2013, Sirhan has been housed at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County. He was visited there around Christmas 2017 by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has long believed that Sirhan did not act alone on the night his father was killed. “I was disturbed that the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father,” Kennedy told reporters. “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.”

Sources

  • Ayton, M. (2019). The Forgotten Terrorist: Sirhan Sirhan and the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy Paperback. S.l.: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Kaiser, R. B. (1971). "R. F.K. must die!": A history of the Robert Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. New York: Grove Press.
  • Moldea, D. E. (1997). The killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An investigation of motive, means, and opportunity. New York: W.W. Norton.