By Mel Ayton
It has often been said that lurid theories about the Lincoln and JFK assassinations have thrived because neither John Wilkes Booth nor Lee Harvey Oswald received their day in court. The concept of due process is so embedded in the American psyche, in other words, that its denial inexorably gives rise to conspiratorial explanations.
The aftermath of Robert F. Kennedy’s June 1968 assassination, however, challenges this somewhat comforting observation.
In this instance, the assassin was literally caught red-handed—tackled by Kennedy’s bodyguards moments after the shots were fired, a .22 caliber revolver still in hand. When the trial of Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old native of Palestine, opened seven months later, his defense counsel explained, “There will be no denial of the fact that our client . . . fired the shot that killed Senator Kennedy.” Instead, Sirhan’s lawyers mounted a defense of not guilty because of “diminished capacity,” the only way to spare their client from what seemed to be his likely fate, the gas chamber at San Quentin.
Sirhan’s counsel had no other choice because the presiding judge, Herbert Van Walker, exercising his discretion, had summarily rejected a plea bargain that would have exchanged life imprisonment for a guilty plea. “We don’t want another Dallas,” Walker reportedly observed, repeating the mantra uttered moments after Sirhan’s apprehension. Walker believed, presumably, that prosecuting Sirhan to the full extent of the law would avert the uncertainty that was already rampant with respect to the first Kennedy assassination. The Sirhan case was being tried at virtually the same time the awful miscarriage of justice in New Orleans—the circus-like persecution of Clay Shaw by district attorney Jim Garrison—was coming to a head. And that debacle was the direct outgrowth of the doubt and disbelief which existed because of Jack Ruby’s vigilantism, and the denial of due process for Oswald.
Sirhan Sirhan had his day in court, indeed, several months. Because of the extraordinary security precautions employed, Sirhan’s prosecution was judged the most expensive US trial ever held, costing the county of Los Angeles $900,000 ($5.3 million in 2007 dollars). And despite the best efforts of his lawyers, Sirhan received the ultimate sanction. The only factor which saved him from being executed decades ago was that three years after his sentence was handed down in May 1969, the state Supreme Court declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional. Sirhan’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and Corcoran State Prison near Fresno, an infamous maximum-security facility, is where he remains to this day—along with other notorious inmates such as Charles Manson.
Judge Walker was not a naïve man, but even a cynic might have been hard pressed in 1969 to foresee how conspiracy theorists would succeed in twisting the facts in a ceaseless effort to raise doubts about what amounted to an open and shut case. Today it comes as little surprise, given the absence of any editorial vetting on the internet, to find many websites and blogs saturated with bogus revelations and mindless repetition of supposed “facts” that were, in actuality, refuted or rationally explained years ago. The tide of nonsense is sufficiently high that on occasion, and as if by osmosis, palpable falsehoods are accepted and propagated by even the most venerable news organizations, as will be seen below.