Recently by Russ Baker: The Invisible Government
Recent legal filings on behalf of Sirhan Sirhan, jailed 45 years ago in the death of Robert F. Kennedy, reveal new evidence suggestive of a larger conspiracy. The filings also enumerate examples of obstructive tactics by a government representative – contortions reminiscent of the Warren Commission's incredible, acrobatic magic bullet that was essential in creating consensus for a lone wolf assassin in the death of RFK's elder brother, John. (If you'd like to read those filings, we've posted them here and here.)
Sirhan, the man almost everyone believes killed Robert F. Kennedy (and did so alone), is seeking a new trial. Sirhan's current attorney, William Pepper, who also served as James Earl Ray's final lawyer and believed that Ray had been set up, is seeking to convince the US District Court for the Central District of California not to accept a report from a magistrate judge, Andrew J. Wistrich, advising that the new trial request be dismissed. It's up to the district court to decide whether to proceed.
Although Sirhan pled guilty at his original trial in 1969, Pepper contends that Sirhan was betrayed by a lead member of his original legal team, Grant Cooper, who Pepper notes was himself under federal indictment at the time for illegally possessing grand jury proceedings in another famous case, involving card cheating at the Beverly Hills Friar's Club. Cooper, who faced possible jail time for that, ended up being let off with a $1000 fine. Intriguingly, his client in the Friar's affair, John Roselli, was an organized crime figure with CIA ties often named as a possible conspirator in the death of President John F. Kennedy.
The defense had Sirhan admit guilt and sought to portray him as both mentally deficient and acting on impulse. Pepper notes that the attorney's personal vulnerability was known to the judge and prosecution, and that they nevertheless said nothing while Sirhan's real interests were not represented, and exculpatory evidence was suppressed. Although Sirhan confessed to shooting at Robert Kennedy, he later said that he could remember nothing at all of that tragic day.
Now, Pepper is requesting a chance to come to court and offer two kinds of evidence — facts known at the time but not presented to Sirhan's jury, and facts that have come to light since the trial. The fundamental claim is that Sirhan was genuinely unaware of his actions on June 5, 1968 – when he did, in fact, bring a gun to the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and shortly after midnight fire at Kennedy from the front. Pepper wants to introduce expert testimony that Sirhan was a guinea pig in a super-secret program to hypnotize people and turn them into unwitting killers. As crazy as this may sound at first blush, the United States government is on record as admitting to research in broad areas of mind control, particularly with regard to the CIA's MKULTRA program, which among other things wanted to determine whether people could be made into killing machines. (For more on MKULTRA historically, see this, and more recently, including threats to Obama's safety, see this.)
Pepper and his experts believe that Sirhan was selected to be the patsy in RFK's death, distracting everyone while a professional assassin fired the fatal shots unobtrusively from inches behind Kennedy – from a crouched position in the crush of people so his actions would not be noticed, milliseconds after Sirhan shot and missed and was immobilized.
Pepper's key argument is that Sirhan, by all accounts, was positioned several feet in front of Kennedy (who was moving toward him), while forensic evidence and extensive eyewitness testimony shows that Kennedy was actually hit in the back from just inches away.
In his filing, Pepper writes:
Inadvertantly [sic], the Report begins by actually supporting Petitioner's claim of actual innocence. It states: u201CAs Senator Kennedy stopped to shake hands with hotel employees, Petitioner walked toward him extending his arm. Instead of shaking Senator Kennedy's hand, Petitioner shot him.u201D(CD 199 at p.1)
This recitation of the activity leading up to the shooting is a virtual admission of Petitioner's innocence since Senator Kennedy was hit by three bullets, fired in an upward angle (indicating that the shooter may have been kneeling behind the Senator) from behind him, by a weapon pressed up against his back with the fatal shot fired about an inch behind his right ear. All shots left powder burns on the back of his jacket and on his skin behind his right ear.
The Report explicitly acknowledges, along with the statements of twelve eye witnesses, that Petitioner was, at all times, in front of the Senator, where, as the Report confirms, the Petitioner could have shaken hands with him.
Petitioner questions whether further comment is necessary in light of this embarrassingly absurd factual foundation for the recommendation that the Petition be dismissed.
Pepper contends that the magistrate, in arguing against a new trial, totally ignored the factual material while focusing on procedural issues. In essence, the dispute comes down to whether those procedural issues can or should trump the notion of u201Cactual innocence.u201D
In support of their contention, Sirhan's team wants to present an audio recording made by a freelance journalist, Stanislaw Pruszynski, in the Ambassador Hotel's pantry at the time of the shooting:
The sounds on that tape, when analyzed with a computerized technology not available at the time of the assassination, clearly reveal that thirteen shots were fired, coming from two different directions –west to east and east to west.
The magistrate has criticized Sirhan's team for not bringing the tape forward earlier, since it has been available since 1988. But Pepper says that this is an absurd objection since the technology to analyze the sounds on the tape only became available in 2005. In arguing against a new trial for Sirhan, the magistrate cites competing u201Cnaked earu201D analyses of the tape by u201Cexpertsu201D who did not have access to the computer program. Pepper, in turn, casts doubt on the ability, motive and track record of one of those u201Cexpertsu201D.
Not the Ideal Attorney
The fact that at this late date we still can't agree on what happened on June 5 goes back to the very beginnings of the case. If Sirhan had been represented by capable attorneys determined to learn the truth about the politically fraught second murder of a Kennedy brother in five years, things might have turned out differently. Instead, his attorneys persuaded Sirhan to plead guilty in hopes of avoiding the death penalty; Sirhan put up no resistance to this strategy since, as he would later reveal, he had zero recall of what happened on the night of the shooting. He was sentenced to the death penalty anyway, though several years later the sentence was commuted to life in prison after California abolished the death penalty.
Pepper, in his recent filing, directs much of his outrage at attorney Grant Cooper:
As a matter of record he accepted, without even the most perfunctory examination or challenge, all of the State's ballistic evidence…. As a result, defense Counsel Cooper's indictment [for illegally possessing grand jury proceedings in another case] went away. He was rewarded for obtaining the guilty plea and death penalty sentence….
Indeed, here's what Cooper said in his closing remarks:
u201CNow, let me state at the outset that I want this to sink in if anything sinks in – we are not here to free a guilty man. We tell you as we always have, that he is guilty of having killed Senator Kennedy….we expect that under the evidence in this case, whether Mr. Sirhan likes it or not, under the facts of this case, he deserves to spend the rest of his life in the penitentiary….Don't we know from dozens and dozens of witnesses that this defendant pulled the trigger that killed Senator Kennedy?…there is no question about that.u201D…u201CI wouldn't want Sirhan Sirhan to be turned loose as he is dangerous, especially when the psychiatrists tell us that he is going to get worse and he is getting worse. There is a good Sirhan and a bad Sirhan and the bad Sirhan is nasty… we as lawyers owe the obligation to do what we think is right to the fullest extent of our ability but we also owe an obligation to society. And, I, for one, am not going to ask you to do otherwise than to bring in a verdict of guilty in the second degree.u201D
It takes a moment to realize that this is not the prosecutor, but the defense lawyer. No wonder most of us take for granted that Sirhan Sirhan killed Robert Kennedy – and acted alone.
Throughout his closing argument, Petitioner's Trial Counsel never lost an opportunity to praise the prosecution's case and the prosecutors themselves. He, continually, strangely, elevated them, and the prosecution's case in the jury's eyes.
Russ Baker is an award-winning investigative reporter. He has written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice and Esquire and dozens of other major domestic and foreign publications. He has also served as a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. Baker received a 2005 Deadline Club award for his exclusive reporting on George W. Bush's military record. He is the author of Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, the Powerful Forces That Put It in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America (Bloomsbury Press, 2009); it was released in paperback as Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America's Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years. For more information on Russ's work, see his sites, www.familyofsecrets.com and www.russbaker.com.