Kennedy's killer demands retrial Sirhan Sirhan claims he was a victim of hypnotic programming

Isabel Vincent
National Post

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Thirty-five years after he gunned down Robert F. Kennedy with a cheap pistol in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, Sirhan Sirhan is demanding a new trial.

The demand is not new. Sirhan, who is serving a life sentence for shooting the New York senator, has asked for (and been denied) a retrial in the past. He has also demanded parole and been turned down 12 times.

 Associated Press

Sirhan Sirhan as he looked in 1968. Robert Kennedy's killer is now 59.

But now, Sirhan, 59, has found a lawyer who claims he was framed, that evidence, including photographs of the crime scene, was destroyed by unscrupulous police officers at the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and Sirhan, who shot Kennedy in plain view of several witnesses, could not possibly have fired the fatal shot.

Sirhan did fire a gun in the early hours of June 5, 1968, in the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was celebrating his win in the California primary, but he was not conscious of what he was doing and none of his bullets killed the senator, his lawyer says.

"Have you seen The Manchurian Candidate?" asked Lawrence Teeter in an interview from his home in California. "It's the same thing with my client. He was the victim of hypnotic programming."

It may seem like a bizarre defence, but it is a measure of the strange fascination with the Kennedy assassination and other high-profile political killings of the era -- U.S. president John F. Kennedy in 1963, black Muslim leader Malcolm X in 1965 and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 -- that more than three decades later, the events still seem to defy resolution.

In Sirhan's case, Mr. Teeter and others claim he was the unwilling tool of some faceless fiends in the Central Intelligence Agency or an amorphous entity they call "the military industrial complex."

Robert Kennedy was on his way to win the leadership of the Democratic Party and possibly the U.S. presidency. Conspiracy buffs argue his pledge to pull U.S. forces out of Vietnam made him a "huge target."

"There were a lot of powerful people who wanted him [Kennedy] dead, and the truth never came out at the trial," said Mr. Teeter, who has also applied to transfer Sirhan's writ of habeas corpus from the U.S. district court in Los Angeles to ensure a fair hearing. The current U.S. district judge in Los Angeles, William Matthew Byrne Jr., was a deputy U.S. attorney who helped prosecute Sirhan. Mr. Teeter wants the case heard in Fresno, near the Corcoran maximum-security facility where Sirhan has spent the past 35 years.

The motion for transfer will be heard at the end of this month.

"At stake here is the integrity of the entire judicial system," says the lawyer, who claims LAPD officials destroyed evidence at the crime scene and blackmailed defence witnesses. "There are peculiar subterranean things involved in this case, but I can tell you this: My client is innocent."

The evidence against Sirhan is overwhelming. The killer was a 24-year-old Palestinian militant at the time he pulled the trigger.

In a diary police found at his home, he reportedly wrote: "My determination to eliminate RFK is becoming more the more [sic] of an unshakable obsession. RFK must die. RFK must be killed. Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated..... Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated before 5 June, 1968."

The date is significant because it is the first anniversary of the start of the Six Day War, in which Israel trounced its Arab neighbours, capturing East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Sinai. Sirhan and his family had been uprooted from their home in Jordan by the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and prosecutors at his trial claimed Sirhan, who was a Christian Arab, was vehemently anti-Israel.

Sirhan testified he was angry at Kennedy after finding out from a radio broadcast in May the senator had promised to send 50 U.S. bombers to Israel. Although he confessed to killing Kennedy, he said later he could not recall the event.

"That whole evening is fuzzy," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. "I remember some things but I honestly have no recollection to this day of firing at Kennedy or shouting 'You son of a bitch' at him. That part is a total blank."

In the interview, Sirhan said his first recollection after the shooting was of "being choked by someone. I thought I was going to be choked to death. Then I remember someone prying that person's hold off my throat."

Mr. Teeter claims his client attended a hypnosis demonstration in Pasadena a month before the Kennedy assassination and may have been recruited by unnamed CIA members who he claims were experimenting with hypnosis at the time.

He also says there is new ballistics evidence that would clear his client. The bullets that killed Kennedy were fired at point-blank range, which for Mr. Teeter is an important fact because witnesses have said Sirhan did not get very close to his target.

Mr. Teeter and other skeptics have long pointed to Thane Eugene Cesar, the part-time security guard who was walking right behind Kennedy when he was killed. Mr. Cesar allegedly fired shots during the melee but his weapon was never found.

Perhaps Mr. Teeter will finally get his chance to defend Sirhan in a new trial, although legal experts say it's a long shot.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Sirhan's appeal to overturn his conviction. Last March, a parole board turned downed his 12th attempt to be released from jail. The board said he could pose a danger to society if released and he was unstable mentally.

Sirhan has reportedly threatened his jailers and written threatening letters to his former defence lawyers.

But his latest champion is undeterred. Mr. Teeter plans to fight for parole at the next review, due in 2006, and is determined to get a new trial.

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