Pasadena’s Sirhan Sirhan has lived the past 40 years in state prison insisting he is innocent of murdering Robert F. Kennedy, his lawyers claiming he was programmed to shoot Kennedy through a top-secret CIA program called MK Ultra.
Adding to his misery, the former Pasadena City College student’s brother, Munir, told the Pasadena Weekly that Sirhan has been forced to live in solitary confinement since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, with false rumors that he is a member of al-Qaeda circulating among the inmates and staff at California State Prison at Corcoran.
And in a major setback for his chances of exoneration, Sirhan’s lawyer, Lawrence Teeter — who was convinced that his client was brainwashed by sinister forces in order to shoot Kennedy that June evening in the pantry of the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles — died two years ago.
But today there appears to be some glimmer of hope for the now 64-year-old Sirhan. In the past few months, Sirhan has acquired new representation in William Pepper, the attorney who in 1999 won a civil judgment in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., thus exonerating convicted killer James Earl Ray and opening a veritable Pandora’s Box of other possible
And the Weekly has learned that Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach actually visited Sirhan at Corcoran in what Rohrabacher said was an effort to have Sirhan implicate others who may have been involved.
Unlike Pepper, Rohrabacher doesn’t believe Sirhan was brainwashed, calling that contention “leftist nonsense.” However, Rohrabacher, who was at the Ambassador attending another election celebration the night Kennedy was shot, believes Sirhan did not act alone.
“No one has to convince Sirhan to confess; he shot Sen. Kennedy in front of many people. There would be no reason for me or anybody else to pressure Sirhan into confessing,” said Rohrabacher. “I went to see him specifically because I believe he didn’t act alone and that the full story of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination has not been known.”
Pepper has been working on Sirhan’s case since last year and is presently waiting to hear from an appeals court on a motion to have his conviction thrown out.
“It asks a judge to effectively let the petitioner go because there is ample evidence of inadequate assistance of counsel. And we actually have newly discovered evidence of actual innocence,” Pepper said in a recent phone interview from his office in New York.
The new evidence Pepper alludes to is acoustical, and “indicates 13 shots were fired when his gun only held eight [rounds]. Some were shot from an area behind the senator, as he was killed from behind, while Sirhan has always been described as shooting the senator from the front,” Pepper said. “And acoustically, they’ve also determined two guns were used because there are different sounds from the calibration of the guns being fired — sonic evidence that comes from analysis of the only tape recording made at that time.”
Pepper has been down this road before. What led to his pairing with Ray was Pepper’s close personal relationship with King during the last years of King’s life.
A close colleague of King’s, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, asked Pepper to reinvestigate King’s assassination in Memphis. And by 1988, he became convinced of Ray’s innocence, representing him throughout the last decade of his life. The 70-year-old Ray died of liver failure in 1998, still in prison.
“We reopened the case in civil court 30 years after the shooting and I represented the King family as they sued [Memphis restaurateur] Loyd Jowers because of his involvement in the conspiracy to kill King,” Pepper explained. The amount of the judgment was $100, primarily because the King family didn’t want to profit from the case. “Most Americans don’t even know that trial took place because it’s been pretty much blacklisted in the US,” Pepper said.
While he has written two books, “Orders to Kill” and “Act of State,” which can be ordered through Amazon, Pepper walked a reporter through his basic contentions in the King case.
“Ray was nowhere near where the shots were fired. He was coerced to plead guilty by his lawyer, who offered the promise of paying him $500 so he could hire a new lawyer later. We had the letter of the lawyer, Percy Foreman, who put the offer in writing,” said Pepper. “Ray was in prison before and was profiled as a patsy. He was allowed to escape from prison in 1967. We now have proof that he was allowed to escape and was tracked and monitored by a government handler named Raoul who fed him money and kept getting him jobs to earn his trust.
“Raoul eventually promised him travel papers because Ray was trying to leave North America. They met in Canada. In the meantime, he asked Ray to do different jobs for him, smuggle things here and there,” Pepper continued. “Eventually he convinced Ray to go to Memphis, but he just lured him there to facilitate an arrest instead of letting the police conduct an honest and thorough investigation for the actual shooter. And ultimately, attorney Percy Foreman said he’d give $500 if Ray would plead guilty.”
As strange as this all may sound, consider two important factors: King’s own family came to believe in Ray’s innocence and the civil jury returned a unanimous verdict in just 59 minutes exonerating Ray in King’s death. Rather, jurors assessed 30 percent of the liability to Jowers — who claimed to have personal knowledge that Ray was innocent and that the killer was really a Memphis police officer — and 70 percent to agents of the state of Tennessee and the city of Memphis. Jowers died of heart failure in 2000.
Despite all this, Ray remained in prison until his death — something Pepper and his team don’t want to see happen with Sirhan.
Pasadena-based attorney Mark Geragos said winning a civil wrongful death trial is an easier,
yet often pyrrhic, victory. “The advantage of civil trials is that the standard of proof is set somewhat lower than in criminal trials, since the plaintiff only has to establish a preponderance of evidence rather than proving their point beyond a reasonable doubt,” Geragos explained. “The case of James Earl Ray has always fascinated me, and I sympathize. There are hundreds of pieces of evidence and documents that were never released by the FBI in his case, and one can only wonder what they might have proved.”
‘Diana’s’ here for you
In the Sirhan case, Pepper and his aide Summer Reese are trying to get the California State Bar Association to hand over all the boxes of evidence that attorney Lawrence Teeter had accumulated before his death in 2006.
Generally, Pepper said, he is following the model of the Ray case, which involves compelling a federal court to a take a look at the results of a civil victory and hope that a judge will determine that a new case is worth pursuing.
“It doesn’t compel them to do something at the federal level, but it may convince them to look at evidence they wouldn’t normally look at this time,” said Reese.
Reese also criticized Rohrabacher’s visit to Corcoran to see Sirhan in early 2007, saying “We got a letter from Sirhan, who was told a ‘Diana’ was coming to see him,” she recalled. “Sirhan didn’t know it was the congressman because the visitor was presented as a woman.”
Reese said Sirhan was told the person was coming to talk about the atrocious conditions he faces in solitary confinement. “So, of course, he said sure, send this person in.”
Reese said no one on Sirhan’s legal team was informed of the meeting, and when Rohrabacher arrived with two aides, she claimed he “repeatedly badgered him to admit he did the killing to clear his conscience. The two aides tape recorded the whole thing and Sirhan felt very used and abused by the process.”
The timing of the visit was highly suspicious, Reese said. “Why visit after all these years, unless they’re worried about whatever new legal proceedings will produce and trying to torpedo that by getting him to admit something he didn’t do?” she asked. “We never received an answer from Rohrabacher’s office about why he was there, or tapes of the conversation that were made while he was in there. They admitted they were there, but there’s no explanation from Rohrabacher or his aides. He was not there for justice.”
Reached by phone at his Washington office, Rohrabacher was forthcoming about his visit with Sirhan.
“What’s more likely: That Sirhan knew what he was doing and lied all along, or that he blacked out, was taken away and programmed by some intelligence agency? It’s more likely that Sirhan, being of Palestinian descent, was upset with Sen. Kennedy for being a champion of F4 fighter jets to Israel,” said Rohrabacher. “Before the 1967 war, the US didn’t provide weapons to Israel, and Robert Kennedy was the champion of the first arms sale to Israel.”
While Rohrabacher does not find it suspicious that extra bullet holes were found in the pantry where Kennedy was shot, he does question the fact that evidence collected and stored by the LAPD has been lost over the years.
“One of the several things that was very indicative of that night was that while I was walking into that party somebody ran past me and bounced off me. The guy was wrestled to the floor in front of me by either security guards or police and he was hauled out right in front of me,” Rohrabacher recalled. “He’s got these handcuffs behind his back. The guy looked exactly like Sirhan, a young Arab-looking guy. Was the guy I saw Sirhan or somebody else? Either way, that’s a big deal because nowhere does it ever mention another Arab being there that night, nor does it mention that he was under police custody,” Rohrabacher added. “It was 20 minutes to a half-hour later at the most when we walked out of the lobby and Kennedy had been shot and it was a bizarre horrific scene.”
Rohrabacher believes that the chain of events he witnessed means that either there was more than one man of Middle Eastern descent in the lobby area that night, or that Sirhan was taken into police custody, released and proceeded to commit the assassination. Rohrabacher believes officers involved would try to cover up their mistake in releasing Sirhan, and that’s why many of the records are missing or heavily redacted.
“I think it wasn’t just one Palestinian who was upset but a group, that there was a real conspiracy of some Palestinians to kill an American senator for helping Israel,” said Rohrabacher.
“As the record stands, it’s inaccurate. But I hope this gets people focused on this again because there’s a very good chance there was a deeper conspiracy.”
But more than that, “I would like Sirhan Sirhan to finally, at long last, level with the Kennedy family and the American people, whether to clear his soul as part of his Christian beliefs or try to set the record straight,” Rohrabacher said.