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An American postal stamp featuring a portrait of Robert Francis Kennedy

Robert Kennedy: Biography

Image Credit: Sergey Goryachev / | Above: A 1979 American postal stamp featuring a portrait of Robert Francis Kennedy

Robert Francis Kennedy was born on 20 November 1925, the seventh child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Raised within the same wealthy, competitive environment as his elder brother, John F. Kennedy, his exclusive schooling included Harvard and the University of Virginia school of Law, where he completed his degree in 1951.

Following his law degree, he managed the successful political campaign that saw his brother elected as a United States Senator. He repeated this success with JFK’s presidential campaign, and was duly rewarded for his service with the post of Attorney General, within the new Kennedy administration. He played the key advisory role in all areas of policy, the close family tie far outweighing all other Cabinet posts, despite his relative political inexperience. He was a firm supporter of the civil rights movement, and was instrumental in the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He also spearheaded a nationwide campaign against organized crime, mob violence and labour racketeering.

He maintained this position of executive influence up until the assassination of JFK, in November 1963, where after the installation of Lyndon Johnson as President saw a marked reduction in his political power, despite his remaining as Attorney General within the Johnson administration for a time.

Visibly devastated at the loss of his brother, Kennedy left the Cabinet to run for the position of New York Senator in 1964, and the political capital accrued by the Kennedy family’s loss was sufficient to secure the Senate seat in November 1964. During his time in the Senate he made poverty, and civil rights work, the focus of his attentions, and campaigned for the abolition of discriminations at all levels of American society. Despite his support for increasing armed forces in Vietnam during his brother’s administration, he reversed his previous position on the Vietnam War, accepting the need to withdraw from the Asian conflict.

He decided, in 1968, to launch his own campaign for selection as the Democratic nominee for President, on a far more radical social reform platform than that which had been advocated during his brother’s term as President. Faced with Kennedy as an opponent, Lyndon Johnson announced on 31st March 1968 that he would not be a candidate for re-election.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated on 4th April 1968, Kennedy made an impassioned speech about the need for racial reconciliation, which was credited with dampening what had threatened to become widespread, racially-demarcated riots. His overt support of the poor drew large crowds on his campaign trail, and Kennedy secured a significant number of victories in the primaries leading up to the selection of the Democratic candidate, practically ensuring his nomination for the US Presidential elections, due to take place in November 1968.

The Assassination

On the evening of 4th June 1968, Kennedy was upstairs in his room at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, awaiting the official outcome of the Californian ballot, which he was confidently expected to win, once counting was completed. At 11.30 p.m., when it appeared that victory was imminent, he moved down into the hotel Ballroom with his entourage, where he was greeted by rapturous applause. He made a speech, which referenced the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, and again called for racial tolerance, as well as emphasising the need to withdraw US forces from Vietnam.

Having completed his victory speech by 12.15 a.m., in the early hours of 5th June, he made his way to a press conference in a different part of the hotel, along with his entourage, which took him through a narrow corridor containing an assortment of catering equipment, that formed part of the hotel kitchens.

Security within the hotel was minimal: Secret Service agent protection was only extended to the President at that time (after Kennedy’s assassination, all Presidential candidates became entitled to Secret Service protection for the duration of their campaigns) and he was ushered between venues by a single guard, Thane Cesar, from a private security firm, who steered Kennedy through the congratulatory crowds packing the narrow corridor.

A diminutive man approached Kennedy’s entourage head-on, and fired repeated shots from a .22 calibre weapon. Kennedy was hit three times; once in the back of the head, and two further body shots; an additional shot tore his clothing but failed to penetrate. He fell to the floor, bleeding, as did five other individuals who received less serious wounds, either as a result of direct hits or ricochets. The gunman was subdued by a number of men within the entourage, but not before the 8-shot cylinder had been emptied. Kennedy, in obvious pain, enquired whether anyone else had been injured, and was attended by Dr. Stanley Abo, who discovered the bullet hole behind Kennedy’s right ear. Recognising the risk of a blood clot, he made attempts to keep the wound clear, and Kennedy was rushed by ambulance to Central Receiving Hospital. When the severity of his head wound was discovered, and it became clear that Kennedy would require extensive neuro-surgery, he was transferred again, this time to the Good Samaritan Hospital.

Meanwhile, the diminutive gunman was handed over to the police: he had seemed strangely calm throughout the entire chaotic episode, and offered no resistance to the arresting officers. He appeared incapable of providing his name, but was cooperative in all other respects.

Back at the Good Samaritan Hospital, Kennedy underwent three hours of surgery to remove a blood clot behind his brain, as well as bullet and bone fragments. Despite the surgery, his condition worsened steadily throughout the day, and he was finally pronounced dead at 1.44 a.m. on the morning of 6th June 1968, having never recovered consciousness after the surgery. He was 42 years old.

The Aftermath

On 8th June 1968, a funeral mass was held for Robert Kennedy at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. In his eulogy, his grieving brother Edward asked that Kennedy be remembered as “a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

Following the mass, Kennedy's body was transported by train to Washington DC, where he was buried near his brother, John, in Arlington National Cemetery.

The gunman was not identified immediately, as he had no criminal record, and he was kept in maximum-security lock-up for his own safety. He continued to be calm, compliant and courteous, but seemed confused by his part in the crime which had been committed. It took the intervention of two of his brothers, who presented themselves at a police station in Pasadena, to effect the identification.

The gunman was 24-year old Sirhan Bishar Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant who had lived in the United States for 12 years, and currently resided with his family in Pasadena. Within an hour, investigative authorities were searching the family home, where they found a notebook in Sirhan’s bedroom, which contained specific remarks about Robert Kennedy, one of which read “RFK Must Die.” His family appeared utterly shocked by the events, and seemed to have no fore knowledge of the assassination plan. The investigation of Sirhan revealed an unhappy childhood, erratic employment history and changing religious allegiances, but no discernible political conviction beyond the anti-Kennedy sentiments found in his personal notebooks.

Having occurred so soon after the assassination of his brother, John, there was widespread belief that the attack was part of a deeper conspiracy. When it appeared that Sirhan’s motivation was Kennedy’s pro-Israeli stance, specifically his support for the June 1967 Six Day War, which saw the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel, rumours began to surface of a clandestine extremist terrorist organisation whose aim was to undermine ‘The American Way’. The investigating authorities were determined that mistakes made by previous authorities, in the investigations of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, would not be repeated, and a special task force, called Special Unit Senator, or SUS, was established, to concentrate on any conspiracy theories that might surface, with a view to addressing public unease.

Following Kennedy’s death, Sirhan was charged with his murder, as well as the attempted murders of the five other individuals wounded during the attack. During the course of the investigation by the SUS, a number of conspiracy theories were proposed, investigated and discounted and, in October 1968, both the prosecution and defence agreed that the case against Sirhan would proceed on the basis that he had acted alone in commission of the crime.

The Trial of Sirhan Sirhan

The trial finally commenced on 7th January 1969 in the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles, but was almost a non-starter, when the defence offered to plead Sirhan guilty in exchange for life imprisonment, rather than risk him face the death penalty. Given the complications and uncertainties surrounding the case, the prosecution were inclined to accept the plea bargain, but the presiding Judge was mindful of the political ramifications, and accusations of conspiracy, and insisted that the trial proceed as planned. The case lasted fifteen weeks, and prosecutors presented the physical evidence found at Sirhan’s home, and a mountain of forensic evidence, while the defence offered evidence about his abuse at the hands of his father, and his generally unstable life, as mitigating factors in the crime.

When Sirhan took the stand in his own defence, he claimed to remember nothing at all about the night of the assassination, but admitted that he might have been temporarily insane. There was discussion of his motivations for killing Kennedy, namely his pro-Israeli political stance, but the chronology of public statement was at odds with the evidence in his notebook: Sirhan appeared to have recorded anti-Kennedy statements prior to the dates of Kennedy’s public speeches, which Sirhan claimed were the motivation behind the assassination.

Despite these inconsistencies, the jury returned a guilty verdict on 17th April 1969. Sentencing was postponed until 21st May 1969, when Sirhan was sentenced to death in the gas chamber.

Sirhan was incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison in California to await his execution. Along with all other death row prisoners, Sirhan’s death sentence was commuted to a life sentence in 1972, when the United States abolished capital punishment.

Sirhan was denied parole in 1997. In 1998, on the 30th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, Sirhan sought a new trial on the basis that he had been acting under hypnosis at the time of the killing (see Conspiracy Theories). He was not successful. A further parole appeal was denied in 2000, and it is likely that, despite being a model prisoner, Sirhan will spend the rest of his life in jail.

Conspiracy Theories

Despite the best efforts of the SUS task force, their attempts to quell rumours of conspiracy were unsuccessful from the outset. While it was clear that Sirhan had indeed been present at the scene, and had certainly fired shots, the possibility of a second gunman emerged as eyewitness accounts diverged from the official line taken by the enquiry.

The second gunman scenario first came to light when it became clear that four shots had been fired at Kennedy, and that a further five individuals had been wounded, totalling 9 separate incidents, from an 8-shot weapon. The authorities countered these concerns by releasing a detailed analysis of the trajectory of each of the eight bullets that had been fired, which showed that some bullets had caused more than one wound. The Los Angeles Coroner, Dr. Thomas Noguchi, a respected forensic expert, later refuted this analysis, claiming that it was impossible to compile an accurate trajectory analysis with any degree of certainty.

Interestingly, this trajectory analysis, which emphasized the identification of all shots fired, was again called into question some time after Sirhan’s trial, when it was discovered that a doorframe, which eyewitnesses recalled had contained bullet holes, was removed from the scene by investigators, yet was never pursued as a valid line of investigation. These bullet holes, if proven to be linked to the crime, would have increased the total number of shots fired beyond the eight in the trajectory analysis, (and the eight maximum possible shots of Sirhan’s weapon) proving conclusively the presence of a second gunman.

When the missing doorframe came to light, authorities claimed that the marks on the doorframe had been X-rayed, and discounted as irrelevant, despite the beliefs of those at the crime scene, including coroner Noguchi, that they were definitely bullet marks. When pressed to provide the doorframe, the authorities claimed that it had been destroyed. When asked about the X-rays taken, it appeared that these too had been destroyed. The district attorney’s office refused to pursue an investigation, claiming that it would only serve to confuse the public, especially as Sirhan had already been successfully prosecuted.

When official records were released 20 years after the crime, in April 1988, there were no references to either the doorframe or the X-rays. All records relating to the testimony of the forensic experts who had attended the crime scene had similarly disappeared.

The most difficult forensic anomaly of all to assimilate was the site of the fatal wound on Kennedy’s head: it was located behind his right ear, yet all eyewitnesses claimed that Kennedy had faced Sirhan at all times during the ordeal. In addition, the trace evidence around the wound appeared to indicate that he had been shot from very close range, a few inches at most, whilst Sirhan had never been within three feet of Kennedy. Noguchi also added to the speculation in this regard, making it clear that he would never be able to state, certainly, on the basis of the evidence available to him, that Sirhan had fired the shot that killed Kennedy. Despite these uncertainties, the authorities claimed that none of the eyewitnesses were in a position to know exactly what had transpired during the chaos that followed the shots, and that Kennedy must have turned, unseen, taking the bullet to the back of his head.

The alternative scenario for the rear-entry head wound was that someone situated very close to Kennedy, but behind him at the time, could have fired the shot that killed him. Cesar, the private security guard, was the only person who fit the bill. He was discovered to have anti-Democrat political sentiments, and there were claims from an eyewitness that Cesar’s gun (a .38 calibre) had been smoking during the attack, although Cesar denied having fired any shots. Under interrogation, he also admitted once owning a .22 handgun, but claimed to have sold it prior to the Kennedy incident (this later turned out not to be true: he sold it three months after the killing.) At the time he was questioned he impressed the investigators with his honesty, and successfully passed a lie-detector test, so was never pursued as a viable suspect.

Theories exist also in respect of other possible co-conspirators: there were three individual, and independent, eyewitness accounts, including one from a police officer named Paul Sharaga, of a girl in a white polka-dot dress having been seen talking to Sirhan immediately before the shooting, and then leaving the crime scene laughing, along with an unknown male, but these were never pursued as credible lines of enquiry. Two of these witnesses stated that they had later been coerced, by investigators, into withdrawing the claims. Officer Sharaga, meanwhile, claimed that his superiors withdrew his statement without his knowledge. The investigating team chose to stick with the accepted, single-assailant theory.

Less credible theories point to the participation of the Mafia in the assassination of both Kennedy brothers. Speculation has always existed about a deal between Joseph Kennedy and the Mafia, specifically Sam Giancana, to provide union votes to secure the Presidency for John F. Kennedy. Giancana had expected political consideration for his assistance, and was enraged when Robert Kennedy launched a high profile attack on organised crime from within JFK’s administration, organising the assassination of both Kennedy brothers in retaliation. Yet others believe that Jimmy Hoffa might have ordered Robert Kennedy’s assassination, as he had been responsible for Hoffa’s prosecution during the same campaign against organised crime, and Hoffa made threats against Kennedy whilst in prison.

The investigation of Sirhan revealed an unhappy childhood, erratic employment history and changing religious allegiances, but no discernible political conviction beyond the anti-Kennedy sentiments found in his personal notebooks. This led to some speculation about the possibility of Sirhan having been hypnotised or brainwashed, which was given further credence by his eerie calm during the commission of the clam, described by several eyewitnesses, and his confused demeanour after his arrest. This possibility was never explored by the investigation, but was raised by Sirhan at his trial, and later in prison. Sirhan made the same claim again in 1998, on the thirtieth anniversary of Kennedy’s death.