Thursday, March 8, 2012

Did a Second Gunman Really Shoot RFK?

On February 1, 2012, attorneys for Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of assassinating Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) in 1968, filed documents in federal court requesting either his outright release from prison, or a new trial.  This request was based on new evidence indicating that a second shooter was at the scene of RFK’s assassination, and that Sirhan never actually shot the presidential candidate.  Further, they alleged that the prosecution did not rely on plausible physical evidence because Sirhan was apprehended while shooting at RFK, and his case was biased because “all credible accounts” named Sirhan the killer.  In all, Sirhan was charged and convicted of murder and five counts of attempted murder. 

These claims surround a tape recording that was uncovered in 2004.  According to audio expert Philip Van Praag, the tape recorded thirteen gunshots.  This is an important revelation, as Sirhan only possessed one gun, and that it held only eight bullets.  Sirhan’s attorneys allege that because Sirhan was apprehended so swiftly, he was not able reload during the shooting, so there must have been another gunman.  Van Praag also concluded that the shots were fired too close together to have come only from Sirhan’s gun, and that five of the shots were fired from the opposite direction of Sirhan’s shots.  As to the additional bullets, Sirhan’s attorneys allege this evidence was removed from the scene by law enforcement authorities.

Medical evidence indicates that RFK was shot from an upward, point-blank range from behind.  However, several witnesses stated that Sirhan stood in front of RFK and fired his gun horizontally from several feet away.  Other witnesses say that Sirhan was grabbed after the first two shots were fired, and that his arm was pinned against a table, preventing him from firing the six other shots at RFK.      

Where the defense probably loses their argument, however, is their theory of why Sirhan was shooting in the first place.  They allege that he was “hypnoprogrammed” to act as a decoy by shooting at people around RFK, allowing the real assassin to kill RFK and avoid detection.  To support this bizarre contention, the defense lawyers hired Daniel Brown, a Harvard University associate clinical professor in psychology, and memory expert.  They also describe him as a “foremost expert[] in hypno programming.” 

Brown’s analysis of Sirhan spanned three years and involved sixty hours of interviews.  Until recently, Sirhan maintained that he could not remember anything about the shooting, or the events preceding or following it.  Sirhan now reportedly remembers “the thunderclap of other bullets” fired by someone else.  The defense argues that Sirhan was programmed to shoot at imagined “targets” like those in a target range, not RFK.  Brown also believes that a woman in a polka dotted dress led Sirhan into a pantry.

The defense no doubt feels they must assert this sort of argument because without it, Sirhan has little chance of release from prison.  The government points this out, arguing that even if there was a second gunman, Sirhan still shot several people.  Additionally, the government contends that the defense must show that “no reasonable juror could have convicted him if a jury had considered his ‘new’ evidence . . . in light of the overwhelming evidence supporting the convictions.”  Even considering the new evidence, a jury could still have reasonably convicted him of these crimes. 

The most interesting aspect of this case is that this is the first time the government has been forced to address the possibility of a second gunman in the RFK assassination.  Does this filing mean that Sirhan should be released from prison?  Considering that he still shot several people, even if everything the defense claims is true, Sirhan should not be allowed to go free.  Should the government begin a new investigation into RFK’s death?  Perhaps, but so far, the evidence about a second gunman is still shaky.  Van Praag is the only expert offered by the defense at this time to say that the audio recording recorded several gunshots, and other experts disagree with his findings.  Additionally, eyewitness testimony can be notoriously unreliable, especially in high stress situations such as an assassination.  

I expect that while this case will garner some media conspiracy theory attention, but that Sirhan will not get a new trial, nor be released from prison.  Even if everything the defense claims is true and Sirhan received a new trial, he still shot several people.  A reasonable jury is unlikely to believe his hypno programming story, and if re-tried, he would still be found guilty of five counts of attempted murder, even if the jury acquitted him of RFK’s assassination.  Given the high profile nature of the assassination, any judge hearing the case is likely to be incredibly hesitant to side with the defense.    

Bonnie Lindemann
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

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