Joseph A. Palermo

The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert Francis Kennedy allows for a moment to reflect on the meaning of that tragic event. Alongside a four-part Netflix documentary, dozens of articles about RFK have recently appeared, some of which raise new questions about the assassin’s motives and whether or not he had acted alone. One historian has tried to place RFK’s killing squarely inside the contemporary U.S. discourse of the “war on terror”; while other commentators cast doubt on the idea that the person convicted of the crime was truly guilty.

The 1968 Democratic primary in California was among the most important elections held in the United States in the 1960s. With its racial and ethnic diversity and its manufacturing, agriculture, technology, and service industries, the Golden State was seen as a microcosm of the nation. The 174 votes of the California delegation that Kennedy won in the winner-take-all primary put him in a far stronger position going into the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August. Kennedy’s victory brought to the forefront the wing of the Democratic party that called for an end to the Vietnam War, supported the struggle for civil rights (including farm workers), and advocated new programs to alleviate poverty. RFK’s California win was a pivotal moment for his presidential bid both practically and symbolically. More than any other state, it was California that cleared a pathway for Kennedy to win the nomination of his party and possibly the presidency that November.

The 1968 Democratic primary in California was among the most important elections held in the United States in the 1960s.

Having written two books and several articles about the life of Robert F. Kennedy, up until now I have eschewed writing specifically about his murder. But as the fiftieth anniversary drew near I felt compelled to spend some time in the California State Archives in Sacramento combing through Los Angeles County Sheriff’s records relating to the time immediately following the assassination, when the accused suspect was in the deputies’ custody. Until now these deputies’ logs languished in the archives unremarked upon even though they contain illuminating evidence regarding the alleged assassin’s motives and demeanor in June 1968.

My aim in this article is not to draw grandiose conclusions about the motives behind RFK’s killing, but to try to capture the drama of the details of one of the most consequential political assassinations in American history, and to reconsider that dreadful event of 5 June 1968 in light of what I found in the archival documents.


Photo 5 from Bayview Branch Archives: Robert Kennedy in Bayview Hunters Point. Photo possibly taken 10 May 1967 when U.S. Senators Robert Kennedy, George Murphy, and Joseph S. Clark visited San Francisco’s Western Addition and Bayview Hunters Point neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

The Fatal Event in Los Angeles

Packed tightly inside a sweltering ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, several thousand people—as diverse as California itself—were euphoric that their candidate had just won the state’s Democratic presidential primary. When shrieks arose from a far corner of the room, people realized something was terribly wrong. The realization that gunshots were fired wafted through the crowd, followed by the human sounds of panic mixed with disbelief.

Could this really be happening? New York Senator Robert Francis Kennedy, the younger brother of the slain President John F. Kennedy, suffering a similar fate?

An ambulance rushed Robert Kennedy to Central Receiving Hospital (where he received last rites) and then to Good Samaritan Hospital for emergency brain surgery. For three hours doctors endeavored to remove bone and bullet fragments from the base of his brain, after which he lay clinging to life in “extremely critical” condition.

Back at the Ambassador Hotel, police detained a “John Doe” and charged him with four counts of assault with attempt to commit murder. A secret arraignment was scheduled for 8:30 that morning where bail would be set at $250,000.

The John Doe was being treated at the jail hospital for injuries sustained during his apprehension when prosecutors added two more charges of attempted murder.[1] The doctor’s memo stated the suspect’s left index finger had been fractured and he had a sprained ankle, adding: “blood pressure 112 over 70, pulse 80, temperature 98.0, weight 109 lbs.” His height was listed at sixty-two and a quarter inches.[2]

L.A. County Sheriffs knew extraordinary measures were needed to ensure the safety of their charge. Witnesses at the scene had already alluded to the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President Kennedy, who was murdered while in police custody. “We don’t want another Dallas,” someone blurted out when the shooter was being taken out to a police car. The F.B.I. stationed an agent at the Sheriff’s Department to help protect their detainee from those who would do him harm (or from suicide).[3]

Given the intense interest in the shooting of Robert F. Kennedy and what had transpired in Dallas fifty-three months earlier, L.A. County Sheriffs reassured the public they were taking all necessary steps to keep their famous inmate safe.[4] Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess told the press that no prisoner in the history of the country had ever been held under such tight security. “One deputy remains in the cell with the prisoner at all times,” he said, “while another stands outside in the corridor and watches the cell through a small window in the door; and four more deputies are nearby.”[5]

By noontime 5 June, investigators learned the John Doe’s identity from his brother, who believed his gun was used in the shooting. They were holding Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, whose family immigrated to the United States in 1957 “from Jerusalem, Jordan.” A Sheriff’s Department memo stated that his father, Bishara, had returned to Jerusalem in 1959, and his mother, “Marg [sic] Sirhan,” resided in Pasadena and worked at the Westminster Nursery School. “Pasadena police department [sic] records reflect many calls to the home of Sirhans to settle family disturbances.”[6] The arrest report reads:

Sirhan Sirhan 24 Years

Is not a citizen of the United States and to our knowledge has never applied for citizenship.

Graduated from John Muir High School in Pasadena in 1963. Fellow students like him and called him “Volk,” which means wolf in Russian—Name resulted from his participation in a Russian language class at school.

Has been employed as an exercise boy at racetracks and also as a stock clerk in health food store.

His is Christian, not of Moslem [sic] faith, so diet will not present a problem while he is in our custody.[7]

At about two o’clock in the morning on 6 June, Kennedy’s press secretary Frank Mankiewicz read a short statement from Good Samaritan Hospital: “Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968. With the Senator at the time of his death was his wife, Ethel, his sisters, Mrs. Patricia Lawford and Mrs. Stephen Smith, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. John F. Kennedy. He was forty-two years old.”

Death threats and rumors of death threats flooded the L.A. Sheriff’s Department. A woman called saying her brother-in-law was “determined to kill Sirhan and will attempt to do so when he is taken to trial.” Another tip warned that members of the Mexican-American militant group, the Brown Berets, “may attempt to assassinate Sirhan during one of his court appearances.”[8] Sheriffs also heard from postal inspectors who “received an anonymous call from a male identifying himself as an employee at the Terminal Annex to the effect that he had overheard Negro employees in the Annex state that they were going kill Sirhan Sirhan when he was removed from the security of jail.”[9] Another police report noted a call from “an unidentified male” claiming there had “been a bomb planted in the Hall of Justice [in Los Angeles] set to go off at 4:00 p.m. to kill the suspect that shot Senator Kennedy”; “a shakedown of the building is underway.”[10] There was even a rumor that an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union was “going to pass suspect Sirhan a cyanide pill.” [11]


On Tuesday, Robert Kennedy had been celebrating his hard-fought election victory in Los Angeles. By Saturday evening he was beneath the ground in Washington.

For unknown reasons investigators sought information about Robert Kennedy’s friend, movie director John Frankenheimer, whose home Kennedy and some of his family members stayed in while he campaigned in southern California: “A confidential informant reports subject is a movie and television producer of some magnitude. Informant dislikes subject because of his means of picking talent used on his shows and the fact that although married, he openly ‘carries on’ with numerous paramours.”[12]

The Sheriff’s Department also took an unsolicited phone call from a woman who spoke about Mr. Sirhan stalking Kennedy: “On the day preceding the assassination of Senator Kennedy, a young man, whom she recognizes as Sirhan Sirhan, accompanied by a young lady came to the headquarters and represented himself as a member of the Kennedy Headquarters in Pasadena. He was asking information on the Senator’s schedule…. She and another employee can describe his female companion and can identify her.”[13]

About thirty-five hours after his arrest, Sheriff deputies checked out two books from the public library, which Sirhan Sirhan had requested: The Secret Doctrine by H.P. Blavatsky and Talks on ‘At the Feet of the Master’ by C.W. Leadbeater.[14] The next day the Los Angeles Times explained to its puzzled readers that Blatavsky was a Russian-born founder of the theosophical movement who died in 1891, and “Leadbetter’s 522-page book, published in 1923, is a critique of ‘At the Feet of the Master,’ a theosophical work by Jiddu Krishnamurti published in 1895.”[15] The esoteric reading habits of the young alleged assassin (who multiple press accounts called “swarthy”) only fueled public speculation about his motives. The news story led an educator who was familiar with the works from the English Department at Eastern Michigan University to send Sheriff Pitchess a letter imploring him to look into the possibility that “you are dealing with a ritual murder, which the defense might easily use to prove insanity of some sort, religious compulsion, etc.”[16]

At midday on 6 June, Kennedy’s body, inside a casket of African mahogany, left Good Samaritan Hospital in a blue hearse with a cortege of nine limousines and motorcycle police escorts. After the twenty-mile freeway ride to LAX, several hundred onlookers watched as the Kennedy entourage boarded an Air Force 707 jet that President Lyndon B. Johnson provided. Jacqueline Kennedy and Coretta Scott King joined Ethel Kennedy on the plane.

After a four-and-a-half hour flight, the plane touched down at La Guardia Airport in New York at 8:58 p.m. From there a hearse and thirty-four cars slowly made their way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Over the next forty hours, 151,000 people, some of whom waited for up to six hours in ninety-degree heat, made the pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s to spend a few seconds filing past Kennedy’s casket.

The following morning, a grand jury of fourteen women and eight men convened at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles for a daylong hearing. They heard testimony from twenty-two witnesses before indicting Sirhan Sirhan on one charge of first-degree murder and five counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder.[17]

On Saturday, 8 June, there was a nationally televised funeral service with Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and other U.S. officials as well as foreign dignitaries in attendance. At the close of the forty-five-minute ceremony, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the thirty-six-year-old youngest sibling of the Kennedy clan who had lost all three of his older brothers, quoted from RFK’s June 1966 South Africa speech as well as from his remarks when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. He closed his eulogy, voice cracking: “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to 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.”

After arriving at Penn Station, Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin was rested on a bier inside a black-curtained funeral carriage at the back of a twenty-one-car train bound for Washington, D.C. He would be laid to rest near his brother’s “eternal flame” at Arlington National Cemetery. News accounts estimated that a million people had lined the tracks and crowded into stations along 226 miles of railway to bid Kennedy a final goodbye. At the gravesite in Arlington, after a brief burial service, Ethel Kennedy was given the folded American flag and her husband of eighteen years, with whom she had ten children with an eleventh on the way, was interred. On Tuesday, Robert Kennedy had been celebrating his hard-fought election victory in Los Angeles. By Saturday evening he was beneath the ground in Washington. 

The Deputies’ “Lettergrams”

The short “lettergrams” L.A. County deputies filed on carbon forms at the end of their shifts (roughly the size of a half-sheet of paper) reported any and all communications with inmates. While the nation was coming to terms with the consequences of this demur young man’s monumental act of violence, working-class Sheriff’s deputies served as his gatekeepers to the outside world.

In the aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Sirhan Sirhan disclosed no interest in voicing any grandiose purpose for his crime. Under California law at the time, if convicted, he could be sentenced to death, which was an incentive not to sound like his actions were premeditated. The majority of the “lettergrams” are routine and institutional, but a few hint at the assassin’s state of mind:

[12 June 1968]

Between 8:00/PM and 9:26/PM I was in room 7058 with I/M [inmate] Sirhan. During this time I/M Sirhan conversed with me about religion. The conversation was light and in generalities.

I/M Sirhan appeared to be rested and in good spirits. Deputy Culver interviewed, stated inmate discussed religious symbols “Egyptian Cross,” “Swastika as cross put to evil use,” [handwriting illegible]

Respectfully submitted,

Dep. William R. Culver #3308[18]

Sirhan generally stayed quiet but when he chose to speak it was about far reaching topics. Under the subject heading “Communication with I/M Sirhan, Sirhan B. #718486” another deputy writes:

[13 June 1968]

During my tour of duty, 3:30/PM-1:30/AM, this day I discussed the following subjects and topics with I/M Sirhan: The French Problem & the gravity of the situation. The essential elements of college & subjects now being offered. Los Angeles & like sister cities, the weather, smog problem & the necessities of automobiles. . . .[19]

On several occasions, Sirhan asked deputies about what the news media were saying about him, but he refrained from using his newfound notoriety to impart any formal statement about his political motivations. He didn’t talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Kennedy’s pro-Israel views, or his own burning desire to kill RFK that was widely publicized after police found diaries in his bedroom where he wrote repeatedly: “RFK Must Die! RFK Must Die!” Sirhan’s jailhouse disposition was a far cry from the young man who filled spiral notebooks with passionate calls for Kennedy’s death.

In fact, Sirhan comes across as being rather listless with little interest in articulating any public statement at all, even after killing a world-famous political figure:

[13 June 1968]

While on duty in I/M Sirhan’s room between 3:30/P and 11:30/P, the only communication between I/M Sirhan and myself was when I/M ask [sic] me if there was still a lot of publicity in the newspapers concerning his case. I replied that I didn’t know as I hadn’t read the newspapers lately.[20]

Another “lettergram” states:

[13 June 1968]

I entered room + [sic] I/M Sirhan said “Good morning Mr. Davis I haven’t seen you for a couple of days! Have you been off?” I answered Yes. I/M “None of the other deputies are talking to me. I notice none of you are wearing name tags, whats up [sic]. New orders from Pete?” I answered No I don’t think that’s it.

I/M “What are the papers saying about me?” I answered I don’t know, I don’t have time to read them. I listen to the news on T.V. in the evenings. If you are curious why don’t you by one? I/M “Naw, I don’t really want to know.”

Respectfully submitted,

Dep. Davis #219 Daywatch[21]

Throughout the “lettergram” records, Sirhan behaves as a model inmate; he respectfully refers to each deputy as “Mr.” and sounds genuinely interested in their lives. His demeanor was no different than any other twenty-four-year-old inmate in the L.A. County Jail who had just made a terrible mistake.[22]


The Provocateur

On the day Sirhan was indicted, an anti-Israel provocateur from New York City named John M. Lawrence, who headed a small left-wing group called “Federated Americans against Israeli Racism” (F.A.I.R.) sent him a letter on F.A.I.R. letterhead. For Mr. Lawrence at least, Sirhan’s motives were clear: “Our pro-Arab political organization extends our friendship to you in your time of trouble. We are proud of you personally for that part of the showing you made establishing you have great heart for the suffering Arab peoples in and about Palestine. We, of course, regret that in your political naivety, you foolishly used the method of assassination.”[23] Lawrence pledges his assistance: “We want you to know that in us, in F.A.I.R., you will have loyal friends. We want to be in touch with you to be of all the help we can in your hard days ahead. To us you are a soldier in the cause of justice for the Arab people who in good faith made a bad judgment.”[24] He concludes his first of many letters to Sirhan: “Day by day the militancy of the Palestinian freedom fighters grows.”[25] A subsequent letter included a money order for an unspecified amount.[26]

Four days later, an ally of Lawrence’s from New York, Dr. M.T. Mehdi, who was the “Secretary-General” of the “Action Committee on American-Arab Relations,” also inserted himself into the case by issuing a press release where he, like Lawrence, directly tied the killing of Robert Kennedy to U.S. Middle East policy:

Sirhan Sirhan is a Christian Palestinian refugee whose people have been either killed, or expelled or subjugated by the Zionist Jews. It was morally wrong on the part of Senator Kennedy to submit to the pressure of the Zionist and promise sending fifty jet fighters to Israel so that more Israeli Jews might kill more of Sirhan’s people and occupy more of Sirhan’s home…. Senator Kennedy is in a very real sense an indirect victim of Zionism.[27]

Mehdi would go on to write a tendentious one hundred-page essay on the subject that was published later in 1968 titled, Kennedy and Sirhan: Why?

Enclosed with Lawrence’s 7 June letter were three copies of F.A.I.R.’s amateurish newsletter, “Insight.” “Restore Palestine to the Arab People” and “For a Unified and Progressive Arab Nation” are the slogans on “Insight’s” masthead. In the February 1968 edition Sirhan possessed, F.A.I.R. vows never to “abandon its basic principle of calling for the abolition or nullification of the Jewish State and government of Israel.” An article therein recounts the “Deir Yassin massacre” of 9 April 1948 where it claims “254 Arabs—men, women, children and even babies—were slaughtered in cold blood, and their bodies dumped into a well…. Remember Deir Yassin! Remember that Jewishism is Nazi barbarism!”[28]

So impressed with F.A.I.R.’s vote of confidence and the content of “Insight,” Sirhan asked deputies about how he might reply:

… At 12:16/PM Sr. Dep. Montague entered room to remove subj. [sic] plate (noon meal) upon subj. request. Sr. Montague asked subj. if he was finished eating and subj. replied “Yes! Thank you!”

At 12:35/PM subj. asked me “How much does it cost to send a telegram to New York?” I replied that I did not know. Subj. was reading the newsletter (Insight) when he asked about sending (the cost) a telegram [sic].[29]

This “lettergram” of 13 June is the first glimpse within the Sheriffs’ logs that Sirhan had any feelings about what the reaction to his deed might be in the Arab world. At 2:30 that afternoon, he wired a Western Union telegram to F.A.I.R.’s office at 57 West 10th Street, New York:

Respected Sirs: Grateful for $ [sic] enjoyed “Insight” Please send more issues. Anxious about Mideast reaction. Sirhan 718486[30]

Obscured by fifty years of reporting and commentary on the RFK killing, Sirhan chose to transmit his first communication to the outside world to a fringe anti-Israel group in New York City. And he didn’t want the public to know about it:

[13 June 1968]

On this date at approx [sic] 12:40/P I/M Sirhan asked “Can the contents of this telegram be kept from the press?” I assured him that I felt this could be done. In I/M Sirhan’s presence, I stated to Sr. Dep. Montague, “He wishes that the contents of this telegram be kept from the press.” Sr. Dep. replied, “Sure.” When the door was closed again, I/M Sirhan said to me, “You’re a good man, Mr. Greene.” I smiled and said nothing.[31]

Apparently wanting to learn more about Lawrence and F.A.I.R., the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department obtained newspaper clippings from New York. One covered an action Lawrence had held a few weeks earlier at New York University where he set up a table in front of Loeb Student Center to distribute anti-Israel materials that provoked a violent reaction from students. “Lawrence, a regular fixture of the Village,” the Washington Square Journal reported, “set the table up at 11:30 a.m. During his 10-hour stay, he moved almost directly in front of Loeb after some students burned a few of his pamphlets, took some pro-Arab buttons, and tore pamphlets and signs that called for Arab revenge on Israel.”[32] The local newspaper estimated that at its peak, a crowd of one hundred people surrounded the forty-six-year-old and he called police, who set up a barricade to separate his table from the angry students. (Lawrence had previously sued NYU after a similar action when he was forced to remove his table.)[33] The whole event seems to have been aimed at little more than baiting NYU students.

Sirhan had every opportunity to share his political views with the public, but he preferred to keep his mouth shut and his contacts with F.A.I.R. hidden. On 14 June, Jack V. Fox, an editor for United Press International, sent Sirhan a list of seven questions with spaces for him to furnish written replies. Given U.P.I.’s worldwide distribution, this was Sirhan’s chance to display his solidarity with people back home in Jordan and Jerusalem. But U.P.I. got nothing from him.[34] The inspiration he gleaned from the “Insight” newsletters filled with anti-Israel invective prompted him to send a telegram, suggest Sirhan’s politics were more sophisticated than he let on.


Sirhan Opens Up

Some of Sirhan’s dialogues with deputies were ponderous, proving the twenty-four-year-old community college student liked to talk about big ideas and contemporary events. One deputy’s log from 14 June describes discussing “the evolution of man and mankind’s beliefs, the current French crisis and the impact on America and how laymen see it, the Southeast Asia escalation and the questions both pro and con presented by Americans.”[35]

One report stands out from the other “lettergrams” and is noteworthy for its length and detail summarizing a colloquy Sirhan had with an African-American officer, Deputy T.I. Greene, where he expressed empathy with the civil rights movement:

Subject: Sirhan Sirhan; Conversation With

At approx [sic] 11:35 A [sic] on 6-14-68, I had occasion to relieve inside Sirahan’s room. After a period of approx 5 minutes silence, he referred to a pile of publications on the floor and asked, “Have you read any of these?” I replied, “No I haven’t.” “I thought that’s why they were out there, so you could read them before giving them to me,” he smiled. I assured him that I had not seen them. He said he wanted me to read something—sorted through the pile, and handed me a publication containing an article of Malcolm X’s visit to the Arab land. The article hailed Malcolm as a great leader and mentioned how he experienced no discrimination, how the Arab was for the Blackman [sic], and that they supported each other (words to that effect). After reading the article I set it down and said nothing. He asked me, “What do you think of the present Black movement?” I told him, “I’m for it.” He said, “Good.” and seemed pleased to hear that.

Next he asked, “What do you feel about Malcolm X?” I said I thought he was a great leader. “You damn right he was,” replied Sirhan and seemed even more pleased than before. With this he pulled another publication from the pile and turned it to another article for me to read. This one was about the Blacks in New York wearing the African costumes, etc. and mentioned identification. I read it and sat it down on the bunk. He wanted to discuss the articles but I just smiled. He smiled also and said, “I understand.” However within a very short moment he asked, “What do you think about Stokely Carmichael?” I told him that I knew Stokely. (I really don’t) He lit up like a X-mas tree and asked several time, “Personally,… personally?” [sic] To this I smiled and lowered my head.

The next question he asked me was, “Have you ever read or do you know an author named Fromm?” and tried to recall his first name. I asked him if he meant Eric Fromm? He said, “yes, yes, that’s the one!!” [sic] He asked me about some other writer who’s [sic] name I can’t recall.

During the time the dialogue was broken by the lunch that was brought into the room. Regarding the demeanor of the servers he asked, “Why do you think they are being so nice to me?” I shrugged it off as “Just following instructions.” He looked at me again with that funny smile.[36]

The provenance of the two-and-a-half-page, hand-written text is that of a standalone chronicle necessitating more detail at the request of a supervisor. Three days later, Inspector R.C. Welch disseminated a memorandum to his deputies clarifying how they should interact with their famous inmate:

All conversations conducted with subject Sirhan Sirhan by the Deputies on duty shall be at Sirhan’s initiative. Deputies shall give noncommittal answers to questions and make no attempts to elicit information through the prolongation of a conversation.[37]

Thereafter, there are no subsequent records of Deputy Greene having any interactions with Sirhan. The discussion Sirhan sparked up with the black officer in an almost pedagogical way proves his keen awareness of the ongoing social struggles of 1968.

Clemency for Sirhan

Eager to interject himself into Sirhan’s case, either to try to co-opt it or draw free publicity from it, Lawrence reemerges 21 June, announcing the formation of an “Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan.” He decried newspaper accounts that Sirhan’s lawyer might pursue an insanity plea. In prose that is somehow both breathless and turgid at the same time, he accused the counsel of “inciting xenophobic anti-foreigner statements from hatemongering elements in the United States to seek to cause schisms in the Arab-American community now uniting to support a clemency appeal for Mr. Sirhan, and to create antagonisms between the peoples and governments of the Arab states and of the United States.”[38] Lawrence was likely reacting to reports that Sirhan’s lawyer sought a psychiatric evaluation of his client.[39]

To drum up support for clemency, Lawrence sent out press releases to the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Free Press, and to the left-wing radio station KPFK in Los Angeles protesting the “prejudicial conduct against” Sirhan.[40] F.A.I.R. and the “Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan” defended Sirhan’s constitutional rights and conjoined RFK’s killing to the struggle of the Palestinian people (something Sirhan had not done publicly). M.T. Mehdi was listed as a co-sponsor. Lawrence’s rambling, eleven-page, single-spaced letter to Sirhan extolling the committee includes a thumbnail history of the United States. The tone of the letter is heuristic, as if to arm the young assassin with a defense of his deed grounded in history.[41]

When The Washington Post published a front-page story about Sirhan on 24 June 1968 by the journalist George Lardner, Jr., Lawrence was apoplectic and wasted no time firing off a blistering rebuttal on behalf of the “Organizing Committee.” He mailed a copy to Sirhan:

We condemn [the article] as part of the neo-McCarthyite, gutter-tactic campaign being waged by U.S. press media, long partisans of the Jewish racist cause of immolating the rights of Palestinian Arabs, to defame and degrade Sirhan B. Sirhan for the real purpose of demeaning the cause for justice for the Arab people.[42]

John Lawrence ridiculed any attempt to pursue a “diminished capacity” defense (even though such a legal tactic was probably the only way to save Sirhan’s life), and refers to Sirhan alternately as a “Palestinian freedom fighter,” a “moderate Christian Socialist,” and an “anarchist.”[43] It seems Lawrence would be just as happy if the state of California made a martyr out of Sirhan and he flattered him with bizarre historical comparisons:

Sirhan B. Sirhan is the Arab-American prototype of John Brown. As John Brown murdered three U.S. troops to seize weapons to help set free the slaves, and by his act awakened the American conscience against the brutalities of slavery and government suppression of the “Underground Railroad,” so Sirhan, with equal political naivety has foolishly, if successfully, struck his blow for Palestinian Arab freedom. Sirhan B. Sirhan is the Arab cause prototype of the workingman who assassinated President McKinley in protest against McKinley’s avowed policy to increase the brutality and terror against organizing workingmen….[44]

In The Washington Post article, a copy of which was held in the L.A. Sheriff’s files, Lardner had interviewed some of Sirhan’s neighbors and co-workers at a health food store. He had been employed there for seven months as a $2-an-hour stock clerk and delivery boy. They all seemed to agree that Sirhan had “wonderful manners” and was generous, even once paying the bill for an elderly customer who couldn’t afford his groceries.[45]

But some of them spoke about another side of the young Pasadena resident. “He had this attitude of rebellion against society,” the owner of the store, John Weidner, told Lardner. “Most of all, he was anti-Israel,” Mr. Weidner’s wife, Naomi said. She recalled a conversation where Sirhan vented his bitterness about the June 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors and grew angry when Mrs. Weidner brought up Nazi atrocities against the Jews during World War II: “Don’t you think the Jews can be cruel?” he asked. “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else, not even my parents”; he disclosed that as a young boy he had seen an Israeli soldier mutilate an Arab woman.

From the Christian village of Taibeh, in what the press called “Israeli-Occupied Jordan,” Sirhan’s father, Bishara, disputed his son’s recollection, stating that he had never been near any Israeli soldiers. Yet three days earlier it was reported in another paper that Bishara conceded that his son suffered facial injuries when an Israeli mortar exploded near him and that he witnessed an Arab woman stabbed by an Israeli soldier.[46] From Lardner’s reportage it appears Sirhan might have simply seized an opportunity to act out when RFK began spending a lot of time campaigning near his hometown. He concludes:

But it seems apparent that resentment of Israel and Robert F. Kennedy’s support of military aid for the country is hardly enough to explain the assassination of which he stands indicted. Virtually every Arab and Arab-American waxes bitter about Israel. There is only one Sirhan Bishara Sirhan.[47]

Lawrence also tried to stoke Sirhan’s hatred toward Kennedy. In another letter he wrote about an “encounter” he claimed to have had with RFK in an elevator in the New York building housing M.T. Mehdi’s pro-Arab group:

I was wearing our pro-Arab button on my lapel, which reads: RESTORE PALESTINE TO THE ARAB PEOPLE. [sic] I told Mr. Kennedy I had heard his Brooklyn College statement and that in time he would find out that there are more people in America for the Arab justice cause then [sic] he knew. In typical Kennedy “smart-aleckism” [sic] he beamed: “Thank you for your support. I appreciate your support.” To this I replied that he would never receive my support, nor those any decent people, for we knew a Machiavellian when we saw one.”[48]

The jailhouse records are bereft of evidence that Sirhan disagreed with any of the opinions or content of the materials Lawrence or M.T. Mehdi sent him.



The anti-Israel groups purporting to operate in Sirhan’s behalf—F.A.I.R., the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, and M.T. Mehdi’s Action Committee on American-Arab Relations—all sought to bolster the young man’s view of himself as a “freedom fighter” for Palestine. They harped on RFK’s support for giving Israel U.S. jet fighters (even though other presidential candidates in 1968 held the same position) and never missed an opportunity to frame the assassination as an overtly political act, even while Sirhan stayed mum on the subject.

F.A.I.R.’s original statement establishing the clemency committee contains a strident assertion that U.S. actions in the Middle East had led to the assassination. In doing so, the militants from New York had fit Robert Kennedy’s killing squarely into a “blowback” narrative. “The Jewish war on Palestinian Arabs more and more will inevitably be brought to the streets of America to those who in cynical politics nurture it,” Lawrence proclaimed.[49] Yet it’s safe to conclude after a half-century that the RFK assassination had zero effect on the trajectory of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

What Sirhan had done was eliminate Kennedy’s voice in domestic politics at a crucial moment when he was seeking to lead a bitterly divided Democratic Party. Sirhan’s act might have proved irrelevant to U.S.-Middle East policy, but it altered American political history profoundly. Not only did Kennedy’s assassination create a vacuum of leadership at a critical time, it began a decades-long identity crisis for the Democratic Party.

It was no secret that as the senator from New York, Kennedy had championed the State of Israel. He had been a friend of the Jews in Palestine from the time he first traveled there as young man in 1948 and wrote about his admiration for the Tel Aviv Haganah in a Boston newspaper. “The United States and Great Britain before too long a time might well be looking to a Jewish state to preserve a toehold in that part of the world,” he wrote.[50] But Kennedy also strongly defended the United Nations as one of the few international bodies friendly to Palestinian interests. He was committed to the wider mission of the U.N. going back to his law school days when in 1951 he defied the University of Virginia’s racial segregation policies to invite the African-American diplomat Ralph Bunche to speak.[51] We will never know how RFK’s views might have evolved had he lived regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

We will never know how RFK’s views might have evolved had he lived regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Eleven months after RFK’s death, while California Superior Judge Herbert V. Walker was considering whether to sentence Sirhan to life in prison or the gas chamber, Edward Kennedy felt it was the right time for the Kennedy family to comment. He sent the District Attorney in Los Angeles, Evelle Younger, a hand-written letter:

Dear Mr. Younger,

Since this is now a question of clemency and the trial proceedings have been concluded, I feel I can appropriately convey to you, for whatever consideration you believe to be proper how we feel.

My brother was a man of love and sentiment and compassion. He would not have wanted his death to be a cause for the taking of another life. You may recall his pleas when he learned of the death of Martin Luther King. He said that “what we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion towards one another.”

Moreover, he was a young man totally committed to life and living. He stood against injustice, poverty and discrimination for those evils lessened life. He grew to despise war for war denies the sacredness of life. And he had a special affection for children for they held the promise of life.

We all realize that many other considerations fall within your responsibility and that of the court. But if the kind of man my brother was is pertinent we believe it should be weighed in the balance on the side of compassion, mercy and God’s give of life itself.


Edward M. Kennedy[52]

After weighing the evidence Judge Walker was in no mood to grant Sirhan the kind of mercy Edward Kennedy encouraged. He handed down a death sentence, thereby sparking an automatic appeal. Sirhan was shipped off to languish with the seventy-seven other prisoners then on death row in California’s notorious San Quentin State Prison.

It’s unfortunate the state of California had the death penalty at the time. When prosecutors sought capital punishment, it forced the hand of defense counsels by giving them no choice but to pursue a “diminished capacity” strategy as the only means to save their client’s life. This policy had the effect of essentially silencing the accused and gave an opening for others to fill in the gaps in the narrative with their own interpretations. Senator Edward Kennedy’s call for sparing his brother’s killer might have complicated matters as well, at least symbolically, because his appeal could be seen as outside meddling by a federal official. But Sirhan was a California prisoner, not a federal one; Edward Kennedy’s widely publicized letter had no legal authority. On death row, Sirhan became the most famous prisoner in the California penal system (until the sentencing of Charles Manson two years later).

In June 2013, on the 45th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death, the Canadian historian Gil Troy published an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post arguing that to “honor” RFK’s legacy, we should view his murder as an early act of Arab terrorism on U.S. soil.[53] “The Kennedy assassination tale,” Troy writes, “highlights the high cost Palestinian totalitarian terror has exacted from civilized society. It spotlights the ongoing dangers of ideological anti-Americanism, which continues to mix with anti-Zionism and serve as an ideological glue in the bizarre Red-Green alliance, linking Progressives with regressive Islamists…. To honor Robert Kennedy’s memory most fully, we must see the Middle East conflict more clearly.”

Troy’s argument, which is a mirror image of the “blowback” thesis, contradicts RFK’s legacy as Edward Kennedy presented it in his eulogy and in his 1969 letter to the judge seeking to spare the life of his brother’s killer. Linking Kennedy’s killing to “terrorism” as defined today only legitimizes those who in 1968 gave backhanded justifications for the crime. Both arguments find common ground in yoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy to U.S.-Israel relations.

Fifty years later, it seems inappropriate to wage a “war on terror” in Robert Kennedy’s name, even though the Sheriff’s logs clearly reveal Sirhan was more stridently committed to the Palestinian cause than he let on. The half-century that has passed since that terrible night at the Ambassador Hotel has proven Kennedy’s murder didn’t alter the course of U.S.-Middle East relations one iota. And for all we know Robert Kennedy, had he lived, could’ve become a powerful advocate for a peaceful and just conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.



[1] Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sirhan Sirhan Case File 1968-1969 (hereafter SSCF68-69), Operational Log, Wednesday, 5 June 1968, 10:15 a.m.

[2] Memo from Marcus Crahan, M.D., Medical Director, to Peter J. Pitchesss, Sheriff, 5 June 1968, “John Doe—Booking No. 718-486,” SSCF68-69.

[3] Memo from Inspector R. C. Welch (Jail Division) to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[4] Press Release, “Pitchess Explains Security Measure on Sirhan Sirhan,” 6 June 1968. On some early correspondence sheriffs referred to the suspect as “Serhan Serhan,” noting they were spelling it phonetically, SSCF68-69.

[5] Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1968, p. 18.

[6] Undated summary memo held in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sirhan Sirhan Case File, 1968-1969, SSCF68-69.

[7] Second undated summary memo, SSCF68-69.

[8] Intelligence Report (Confidential – Restricted), to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[9] Memorandum, Intelligence Bureau to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[10] Operational Log, Thursday, 6 June 1968, 1:20 p.m. SSCF68-69,

[11] Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-22, General Subject Files-Memoranda, 7-14 June 1968, (hereafter GSFM3-22).

 11 Intelligence Report (Confidential -Restricted), To: File; Activity: Follow Up; Area: Malibu; Subject: Frankenheimer, John Michael, 6 June 1968 (his wife, Ethel, and six of their ten children accompanied Kennedy in California), SSCF68-69.

[13] Memo from Robert F. Trask, Captain Commander, Temple Station, to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 7 June 1968, Subject: “Information on the Female Companion of Senator Kennedy’s Assassin,” GSFM3-22.

[14] Memorandum, H.M. Mear, Lieutenant to G. H. Carlson, Inspector, 6 June 1968 (a third book requested could not be found: Divine Cult of Healing by Manley P. Hall), SSCF68-69.

[15] Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1968, p. 18.

[16] Letter from Roger Staples to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 8 June 1968 (on Eastern Michigan University-Ypsilanti letterhead), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-28, General Subject Files, June-November 1968 (hereafter GSF3-28).

[17] Francine Klagsbrun and David C. Whitney, eds., Assassination: Robert F. Kennedy-1925-1968, by the editors of United Press International (New York: Cowles, 1968), 163. The others who were wounded were: Paul Schrade, a United Auto Workers official; William Weisel of the American Broadcasting Company; Ira Goldstein, a Continental News Service reporter; Elizabeth Evans of Saugus, California; and Irwin Stroll of Los Angeles.

[18] Los Angeles County Lettergram, Deputy W.R. Culver to Inspector Welch, 12 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 1-32, Personal Deputies’ Statements, 12-14 June 1968 (hereafter PDS1-32).

[19] Lettergram, Deputy I.B. Mills #3257 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[20] Lettergram, Deputy Ellison #2350 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[21] Lettergram, Deputy Davis #219 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[22] Lettergram, Deputy D. Bridges #1540 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[23] Letter from John M. Lawrence of “Federated Americans Against Israeli Racism” (F.A.I.R.) 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 7 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-26, General Subject Files-Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, June 1968 (hereafter GSF3-26); Sirhan received the letter on 10 June 1968.

[24]Letter from John M. Lawrence of Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., to Sirhan Sirhan, 7 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[25]Letter from John M. Lawrence of Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., to Sirhan Sirhan, 7 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[26] Letter from John M. Lawrence and Abdeen Jabara (attorney) to Sirhan, 14 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[27] Press Release from The Action Committee on American-Arab Relations, Secretary-General Dr. M. T. Mehdi, 441 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York, 11 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Files-General Subject Files, 3-28; (LASDF-GSF3-28), June-November 1968.

[28] Copies of “Insight,” published by Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., 1 April 1968, (Vol. 1, No. 3), New York, N.Y., Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-28, General Subject Files, June-November 1968, GSF3-28. A copy of Sirhan’s telegram is attached to the copies of “Insight” in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department records. September 1967 (Vol. 1, No. 1), February 1968 (Vol. 1, No. 2), and April 1968 (Vol. 1, No. 3).

[29] Lettergram, Deputy G.D. Erickson #2332 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[30] Copy of Western Union Telegram, Sirhan B. Sirhan to F.A.I.R., 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY, 2:30 P.M., 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[31] Lettergram, Deputy T.I. Greene to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[32] Washington Square Journal, Thursday, 16 May 1968, p. 3, GSF3-26.

[33] Washington Square Journal, Thursday, 16 May 1968, p. 3, GSF3-26.

[34] Letter from John V. Fox of United Press International to Sirhan Sirhan, 14 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, General Subject Files, File 3-28, June-November 1968, GSF3-28.

[35] Lettergram, Deputy I.B. Mills to Inspector Welch, 14 June 1968, Subject: “Communicating with I/M Sirhan, Sirhan B. #718486,” PDS1-32.

[36] Letter from Deputy T.I. Greene to Inspector R. Welch, 14 June 1968, Subject: “Sirhan Sirhan, Conversation With,” PDS1-32.

[37] Memorandum, Inspector R.C. Welch to Concerned Personnel, 17 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[38] Press Release, Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY, John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26. The Committee was comprised of Abdeen Jabara, the attorney for the group from Michigan; Frank Sakran of Maryland; Larissa Nassif of Connecticut; and George Mahshie, Omar Ghobashy, Sayed Farooq, George Aboud, and Majid Tayer, all of New York.

[39] “‘Brain Damage’ Sirhan’s Defense? Top L.A. Lawyer Parsons Takes Case,” Herald Examiner, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26, Russell E. Parsons was Sirhan’s lawyer at the time.

[40] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 21 June 1968, General Subject Files-Memoranda, File 3-26, June 1968, GSF3-26. The letter has nine co-signers representing the committee: Abdeen Jabara of Michigan, Attorney for the group; Frank Sakran of Maryland, Larissa Nassif of Connecticut; and George Mahshie, Omar Ghobashy, Sayed Farooq, George Aboud, and Majid Tayer of New York.

[41] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 21 June 1968, General Subject Files-Memoranda, File 3-26, June 1968, GSF3-26.

[42] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, General Subject Files, June-October 1968, File 3-27, GSF3-27.

[43] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, GSF3-27.

[44] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, GSF3-27.

[45] The Washington Post, “Neighbors Recall Sirhan as Shy, Polite,” 24 June 1968, p. A1, GSF3-26.

[46] “‘Brain Damage’ Sirhan’s Defense? Top L.A. Lawyer Parsons Takes Case,” Herald Examiner, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26. The Lardner article also quotes Sirhan’s employer, Mr. Weidner, divulging that Sirhan had told him his father had been a strict disciplinarian who once applied a hot iron to his feet.

[47] The Washington Post, “Neighbors Recall Sirhan as Shy, Polite,” 24 June 1968, p. A8, GSF3-26. Lardner’s piece also recounted Sirhan’s mother’s story that she believed her son had “never been the same” after falling from a horse on 25 September 1966 while “breezing a filly” when he worked at a racetrack in Corona, California. Sirhan had received a $2,000 settlement in his injury case. It was presumed that the $400 on his person at the time of his address was part of this settlement, which he requested from jail that it go to his mother.

[48] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 23 June 1968, General Subject Files-File 3-27, June-October 1968, GSF3-27.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Joseph A. Palermo, Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (New York: Pearson, 2008), 20.

[51] Ibid. 21.

[52] Undated Handwritten letter from Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy to California District Attorney Evelle J. Younger (ca. 18 May 1969), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-17, General Subject Files, 24 April to 14 October 1969, GSF1969, 3-17. In 1972, when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

[53] Gil Troy, “Understanding RFK’s Assassination as Palestinian Terror,” The Jerusalem Post, 5 June 2013.

Joseph A. Palermo
is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. He has written In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001), Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008), and contributed the essay, “Robert F. Kennedy,” to A Companion to John F. Kennedy, edited by Marc Selverstone (Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

Copyright: © 2018 Joseph A. Palermo. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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