Fifty years ago, United States Senator Robert F Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles just moments after he’d won California’s Democratic presidential primary.
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, was arrested at the scene of the shooting in what the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) thought was an open-and-shut case.
Sirhan was tried and jailed for Robert Kennedy’s murder. But since the 1970s, there have been calls for a new investigation into the assassination, based on differing witness accounts, the number of shots fired and distance of Sirhan from Kennedy when he fired.
“We’re trying to prove there was a travesty of justice in 1969 at Sirhan’s trial. We’re trying to prove that there was no way that he could have shot the senator, let alone have killed the senator,” says Laurie Dusek, a member of Sirhan’s defence team.
Kennedy’s wounds suggest his assassin – or assassins – stood behind him, but eyewitnesses place Sirhan about a metre away and almost in front of him. This has led to suggestions that a second gunman may have fired the fatal shot, a theory supported by Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner for the County of Los Angeles, Thomas Noguchi, who stated in his report that the shot that killed Kennedy was fired at the point-blank range next to his right ear.
“The only way to explain this that there was a second gunman in a position behind Kennedy, but the prosecution never proved that Sirhan was behind Kennedy or was able to shoot him point blank,” says eyewitness Paul Schrade.
Witness accounts and more recent forensic analysis support the view that more bullets were fired at the scene than Sirhan could have had in his gun.
Sirhan’s .22 Iver-Johnson revolver could only hold eight bullets, yet as many as 13 shots may have been fired at the scene. Two FBI investigators who attended the crime scene right after the assassination stated that they had discovered two bullets in a door frame – bullets that were not mentioned in the LAPD’s report.
“If a second gun is not firing, there cannot be any bullet holes in the wooden door frames,” explains William Klaber, a journalist and writer who has studied the case extensively. “So the police take those door frames down and they bring them to the police station to do work on them. It turns out these bullets represent too many bullets. Sirhan’s gun holds eight bullets.”
Robert Kennedy’s death, like the 1963 assassination of his older brother, President John F Kennedy, has been the subject of many conspiracy theories.
One suggests that if Bobby were ever elected president, it’s almost certain he would have ordered a fresh investigation into his brother’s assassination, unconvinced as he was by the official version in the Warren Commission report. Other theories include had Robert Kennedy been elected president, he would have taken steps to end the war in Vietnam.
RFK was a principled politician, a New York senator who cared about poverty in the south and racial segregation everywhere. His ideals of a more equal society were never realised but the scale of grief following his death showed how much people appreciated him.
After his body had been flown from California to New York, it was put on board a train to Washington, DC for burial next to his brother John at Arlington National Cemetery – and the railway line was lined with millions of mourners. The journey, however, to establish clearly how he died is still incomplete.