By Andrew Kreig //
Two children of slain U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy are disputing the official account of his assassination 50 years ago, prompting renewed debate before the June 5 anniversary.
Longtime law professor Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Washington Post reporter Tom Jackman raised the profile of the long-simmering controversy with Jackman’s front-page Sunday story on May 26 entitled, Who killed Bobby Kennedy? His son RFK Jr. doesn’t believe it was Sirhan Sirhan.
The son shown is shown at far right in a portrait by Gage Skidmore next to a file photo of his father on the 1968 presidential campaign trail. The late New York senator also is shown above at top in file photo taken during his California Democratic primary victory speech minutes before his murder. RFK was shot in a kitchen pantry after leaving the speaking stage at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Jackman, a Post reporter covering law enforcement since 1998, obtained this scoop: The younger Kennedy was ready to go public in an in-depth manner after spending months re-examining the evidence and meeting in prison with Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of the murder in a 1969 jury trial in which defense counsel mounted scant defense.
“I got to a place where I had to see Sirhan,” Kennedy told Jackman of the defendant, shown at right in a 2016 prison photo.
“I went there because I was curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence,” said Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and the third oldest of his father’s 11 children. “I was disturbed that the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father. My father was the chief law enforcement officer in this country. I think it would have disturbed him if somebody was put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.”
Kennedy’s comments and the Post’s display of them represent breakthrough coverage of the case for a mainstream publication — and a challenge to other family members, authorities, opinion leaders and indeed any concerned citizen. The challenge is whether the oft-reported basic facts of such a high-profile assassination could have been so incomplete or suppressed as to lead to a false imprisonment — and an escaped murderer or murderers.
That’s an assessment provided in an exclusive interview June 4 by Dr. William Pepper, a close friend of the late Senator Kennedy and also the current defense counsel for Sirhan. It took years for Pepper to become convinced that Sirhan was innocent of killing RFK, not just via a legal technicality but as a matter of scientific and other proof.
Pepper, shown at right with his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) at a major political conference in 1967, was a journalist and activist who last year summarized RFK evidence in a pending petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a unit of the Organization of American States (IACHR/OAS), seeking what Pepper calls the first evidentiary hearing ever in the Sirhan murder case.
He regards Jackman’s reporting as extraordinary, much like the Washington Post’s willingness to print it, as well as a breakthrough story by Jackman on March 30, Who killed Martin Luther King Jr.? His family believes James Earl Ray was framed. Jackman, a Post reporter covering courts and crime since 1998, quoted prominent members of MLK’s family as saying they did not believe that his convicted killer James Earl Ray really killed the civil rights leader in April 1968 in Memphis.
“More than any other mainstream media journalist,” Pepper told me regarding RFK’s murder, “Tom Jackman has gone in-depth into the evidence of the case related to Sirhan’s alleged guilt and has very clearly shown that evidence was withheld and that Sirhan was selected as a victim of CIA MK Ultra mind control efforts to be set up as a patsy through the use of hypnosis and chemicals. His role was to perform a distraction so that the real assassin could do his work and put three bullets into RFK’s body at much closer range while Sirhan was always three to five feet in from of the senator.”
Other Mainstream Reporting
Conventional wisdom is that reporters, editors and their news outlets always seek to publish verifiable information challenging the power structure, especially for suspected misconduct in something like a high-profile murder case.
The track record on truly sensitive topics is less than impressive, however, especially if new reporting undermines decades of previous coverage and powerful institutional relationships, as we reported on May 29 in our most recent column here, Rights Pioneer’s Obit Prompts Disputes Over JFK Murder Half-Truths. Our column began: “The Washington Post’s obituary last week of a pioneering African-American lawyer continued the newspaper’s controversial coverage of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the 1964 murder of JFK’s friend and purported lover Mary Pinchot Meyer.”
Regarding the RFK coverage, the Post’s most recent big stories were quite varied in their assumptions.
The gist of Jackman’s in-depth piece on May 26 contrasted sharply with a Post Sunday Magazine story a week later, What is it like to be the brother of Robert Kennedy’s assassin? The life of the other Sirhan. For the magazine piece, Los Angeles-based freelance author Peter Gilstrap accepted Sirhan’s guilt with scant attempt to explore the possibility of his innocence. The discrepancy doubtless occurred in part because of the long lead time for magazine articles, which are generated separately from the Post’s news staff. Nonetheless, the supposedly in-depth treatment that a magazine is supposed to provide managed to miss much of the gist of four decades of investigative revelations.
The Washington Post published in its news section on the same day, June 3, another major treatment, headlined Robert F. Kennedy’s final flight: The storied journey of the ride from California to New York. Authored by freelance legal expert David Margolick, it avoided the issue of murder guilt and focused instead on the mournful yet intriguing airplane flight in which the three widows of 1960s murdered progressive heroes JFK, MLK and RFK accompanied RFK’s corpse from Los Angeles to Washington, DC.
The Boston Globe, New England’s largest circulation newspaper and presumed to be an authoritative source on the Kennedy family, followed up Jackman’s May 26 scoops in the Post by reporting on May 31 that the late senator’s oldest child, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (shown at left), has been persuaded by her brother Robert Jr.’s analysis to join him in seeking a new investigation of the murder.
But the Globe story, RFK’s children divided over calls for a fresh investigation of his assassination by Michael Levenson on May 31, 2018, also reported that two other children of the slain senator said this week that they opposed a re-investigation. Levenson reported that this opposition underscores “how divisive the second-gunman theory continues to be, a half-century after the presidential candidate, former attorney general, and senator from New York, was killed in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.”
Those two children objecting to a new investigation were former Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II (shown at right) and Kerry Kennedy, who is president of a human rights organization named for her father.
This dispute about evidence will surprise and shock many. Most people have thought from initial news reports to the present that they knew what happened: Sirhan hated Kennedy, acted alone to kill him, and was convicted after a fair trial. Any doubts about such a consensus casts doubt on enormously important and influential American institutions and leaders, past and present.
Sirhan, shown in custody, was promptly arrested at the scene after repeatedly firing a .22 caliber handgun at Kennedy after the senator finished a victory speech for the 1968 Democratic presidential primary. Kennedy supporters, including famed athletes Roosevelt Greer and Rafer Johnson, were filmed confronting the slightly built Sirhan shortly after the shooting, which was not itself captured on film according to any public evidence. Kennedy was shot four times. Four bystanders, including Kennedy’s close friend and campaign aide Paul Schrade, received non-fatal wounds..
A jury then convicted Sirhan early the next year after his ineffective defense conceded guilt in the shooting and failed to introduce key ballistic evidence or another compelling basis for mercy. Sirhan, a Palestinian born to a Christian family displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948, asserted that he could not remember details of the incident even though his diary written before the shooting contained in his hand-writing the words repeated many times “RFK must die.”
When murdered, Kennedy was well-positioned to win the Democratic Party nomination. He stood an excellent chance also to use an anti-war and traditional pro labor platform to defeat the Republican nominee Richard Nixon (shown at right as president) in the fall elections.
Instead, RFK was last of the three major 1960s progressive leaders to be assassinated by alleged lone gunman following the murders of his brother John F. Kennedy (JFK) in 1963 and that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) in April 1968.
Our column today summarizes the RFK evidence, controversies and news coverage — and predicts several major developments occurring this coming week that are timed for the murder’s anniversary.
As background, this editor via the Justice Integrity Project and CAPA has published an online “Readers Guide to the RFK Assassination” assembling major books, films, events and archives representing all major interpretations of the crime and last month moderated the RFK assassination panel at Of Kennedys and Kings: Investigating the RFK and MLK Assassinations at 50.
That was a major conference on May 3 and 4 at the 17th annual Forensic Science and Law Symposium sponsored by the Cyril H. Wecht Institute at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which is of course named in honor of CAPA’s chairman.
Editor’s note: The material above serves as an introduction to a longer story on this topic with extensive appendices. That longer feature may be accessed at no cost via the Justice Integrity Project website by clicking here. The focus is, much as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. sought to do in his comment above, on the trustworthiness of courts, media and other democratic institutions to resolve justice system issues that exist here and now