Governor Newsom Should Not Block Sirhan’s Release
Governor Gavin Newsom will soon decide the fate of Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of killing my father, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in 1968. Governor Newsom has stated he reveres my father and will consider the wishes of my family members. But my family is divided; I and two of my nine surviving siblings feel strongly that Sirhan’s release best reflects my father’s legacy.
After more than 50 years in prison, the state’s own psychiatrists and the parole board deem that Sirhan poses no threat to society. During a three-hour meeting in 2018, he impressed me with the genuineness of his remorse for his role in my father’s shooting even though he has always claimed to have no memory of those moments. Sirhan wept, clenched my hands and asked for forgiveness from me, from my siblings, and from my mother for his part in the tragedy. At 77, he seems gentle, humble, kind-hearted, frail, and harmless. My father had a pious Catholic’s belief in redemption, forgiveness, and justice. His favorite quote, from Aeschylus, urged that we should “Tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.” By upholding the parole board’s decision to release Mr. Sirhan, Governor Newsom has the opportunity to demonstrate the humanity, compassion, and idealism of our justice system to which my father devoted his life.
I hope that Governor Newsom will also consider the overwhelming evidence that Mr. Sirhan is not my father’s killer, a fact that authorities knew at the time of his conviction. For this reason, I have also called for a new investigation into the case.
For many years, I accepted the orthodoxy that Mr. Sirhan killed my father. After all, dozens of eyewitnesses in the Ambassador Hotel pantry saw him fire his gun from just a few feet in front of my father. But in 2016, my father’s close friend, Paul Schrade, persuaded me to read the iconic coroner Thomas Noguchi’s autopsy report and to listen to audio recordings and review other evidence proving that Sirhan could not have killed Robert Kennedy.
Sirhan fired only two shots at my dad. One of them struck Paul Schrade in the head. The other likely lodged in a doorjamb behind my father. Five men then tackled and pinned Sirhan to a steam table and diverted his gun away from my father. From beneath that dogpile, Sirhan squeezed off six more shots, emptying his chamber with 5 of the 6 shots hitting bystanders, accounting for 7 of Sirhan’s 8 bullets. According to the autopsy, the four shots that struck my father (one of them passed harmlessly through his suit) were fired from behind at a steep upward angle toward the ceiling. All shots were from within a few inches, with two shots leaving gun powder residue in the wounds, suggesting that the assassin was standing close behind my father shielding his weapon with his body while all attention focused on Sirhan. Mortally wounded, my father turned and tore off the clip-on tie of the man who almost certainly killed him—a recently hired security guard named Thane Eugene Cesar who had clutched my father’s elbow from behind, and steered him toward the steam table where Sirhan was waiting.
Investigations by the LAPD and FBI found several more bullets and bullet holes in the pantry, corroborating that there were more than the eight shots Sirhan fired. The only audio recording of the shooting suggests that there were at least 13 shots fired. LAPD had the audiotape at the time of Sirhan’s trial, but illegally concealed it from his lawyers and the public for 20 years.
Records of the case demonstrate that LAPD’s two lead investigators—men with confirmed CIA ties—bullied and badgered eyewitnesses to change their statements regarding the number of shots, and to silence those who saw Cesar draw and shoot his gun, and those who reported conspirators dashing from the scene. Police inexplicably and illegally destroyed thousands of pieces of evidence, including 2,410 photographs of the crime scene before and after the shooting, as well as the doorframes and ceiling tiles in the pantry with vital bullet evidence, while Mr. Sirhan’s case was still on appeal. A notoriously corrupt LAPD criminologist fabricated ballistics evidence to frame Sirhan using a gun of the same caliber from the police evidence locker to conceal the fact that Sirhan’s bullets did not match those that hit my father. Sirhan’s anemic defense team never challenged the prosecutor’s inconsistencies. Sirhan’s attorney was himself facing criminal charges for illegal conduct on behalf of mob boss Johnny Roselli, who played a key role in the CIA’s Castro assassination program. Sirhan’s trial was akin to a sentencing hearing. This attorney bullied Sirhan into conceding guilt at the outset and actively blocked the inclusion of ballistics and other evidence that might have proven him innocent.
I believe Cesar killed my father. He was in the exact position to fire the shots as described in the autopsy. Three witnesses saw him draw his gun—which he later admitted—and one saw him fire it. He repeatedly lied to the LAPD about owning the same caliber gun as the one used by Mr. Sirhan, about his gunplay that night, and about how he disposed of the weapon. The LAPD never bothered to examine the gun. Cesar, who was moonlighting that night from his high-security clearance job at the Lockheed plant, acknowledged a loathing for the Kennedys and their race-mixing sympathizers. In her 2018 book, A Lie Too Big to Fail, researcher Lisa Pease claims that Cesar described himself as a “CIA contract agent” across multiple databases. Bedeviled by questions about his involvement in my father’s murder, Cesar fled to the Philippines. I was in negotiations with him in 2018, before reports of his death in September of 2019. After first agreeing to meet with me, he gradually escalated his price to $25,000 for the privilege of interviewing him.
The pain that we all continue to feel from my father’s death should not prevent us from pursuit of the truth. Sirhan’s conviction is an all-too-familiar scenario in America: a brown-skinned man languishing in prison based on a conviction built on police corruption and prosecutorial misconduct. Meanwhile, the real killer has evaded justice.
The fiction that Mr. Sirhan murdered my Dad is impeding justice by reducing the incentive to launch a new investigation and hold the real killer responsible. If Governor Newsom overrules Sirhan’s parole, he will become just one more California official who claims to love my father but persists in denying him justice.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the third son of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He is an environmental and public health attorney.