What Sirhan remembers

In March 2011, Sirhan Sirhan appeared in public for the first time in fourteen years at his most recent parole hearing. He was suffering from Valley fever but showed a sense of humour, a sense of humility and a devotion to the Bible that may surprise the Twitterati who still mistake him for an Islamic terrorist.

In the sequence above, you’ll see Sirhan sharing what he remembers about the night of the shooting and the mysterious girl who led him into a dark place in search of coffee. The parole board then delivers its verdict, completely ignoring Dr. Brown’s report validating Sirhan’s amnesia, shamelessly criticising Sirhan for an ‘immature comment’ about being victimised in prison after 9-11 and concluding Sirhan ‘would pose an unreasonable risk of danger or threat to public safety, if released.’

The panel shows extraordinary ignorance of the evidence and says Sirhan needs to do more self-help without recognising the three years of self-help and ‘looking into himself’ Sirhan had just done with Dr. Brown. What good did Sirhan’s intensive attempts at rehabilitation and self-help in the seventies do him? His parole date was rescinded. As the panel explain their decision, who can blame him for turning to his attorney with a rueful smile?

Dr. Brown’s report

Sirhan Sirhan

For three years prior to his last parole hearing in 2011, Dr. Daniel Brown of Harvard Medical School spent over sixty hours with Sirhan Sirhan trying to recover his memory of the shooting. Dr. Brown concluded Sirhan’s amnesia for events before and during the shooting was real but his findings were ignored by the parole board, who saw the gaps in Sirhan’s memory as a cynical ruse to minimise his responsibility for his crime.

Dr. Brown’s report inspired a television experiment by the British mentalist Derren Brown called The Assassin, in which he tried to hypnotically program an unwitting member of his audience to shoot the celebrity Stephen Fry. The experiment was modelled on the particulars of the Sirhan case and the ‘three automatic demonstrations of “range mode” behaviour in hypnosis’ Dr. Brown observed during his sessions with Sirhan, ‘each of which was followed by complete amnesia…’

I advised on the Derren Brown program and I think the opening sequence above shows the Manchurian Candidate theory isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. Read Dr. Brown’s report below for a full description of the “range mode” observed in Sirhan forty years after the assassination and totally ignored by the courts and the parole board to date.

Sirhan on TV

As media interviews with inmates are banned in California, the only time the public gets to see Sirhan Sirhan is in televised coverage of his parole hearings. In 1994, Court TV broadcast Sirhan’s parole hearing live and I’m posting the closing statements of Sirhan and his attorney Larry Teeter from that broadcast today, followed by the parole board’s predictable decision.

Teeter is continually interrupted as he puts several key points on the record that don’t just challenge the official version of the crime but also speak directly to the key criteria the board sets for considering parole. As Teeter reminds the panel, sentencing guidelines at the time recommended 15-19 years for first-degree murder. After 26 years in prison, Sirhan had already served way beyond this. And now, 22 years later, he’s served three times the recommended term for his crime.

In 1982, KCRA obtained a court order and the Board of Prison Terms allowed closed-circuit cameras to record Sirhan’s parole rescission hearings, and all of his subsequent parole hearings were recorded and briefly televised during news broadcasts until now.

Sirhan Sirhan

Now I hear that since Sirhan’s last hearing in 2011, the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) in California no longer allows video or audio recording of parole hearings, censoring Sirhan’s voice from the continuing debate about his case. The relevant title code in the regulations states the following:

§ 2032. (b) Television and radio coverage of Board of Prison Terms’ parole hearings will be authorized, unless such coverage would create a risk to the security of an institution, obstruct the hearing process, pose a risk to the personal safety of any person, or have the potential for prejudicing judicial proceedings…

I can’t see how any of these apply, given the previous thirty years of televised hearings. So what possible justification can the BPH have for denying the public television and radio access to a case of such historical importance? I asked the BPH this question a week ago and am still awaiting a reply.

Sirhan with David Frost

In February 1989, David Frost, an ardent admirer of Bobby Kennedy, interviewed Sirhan Sirhan in Corcoran prison. The interview was first broadcast in the US over three nights on the syndicated Inside Edition but a longer version was broadcast by the BBC and it makes for fascinating viewing, as one of only two in-depth television interviews Sirhan has ever done.

I recommend watching the whole thing but the clip above jumps to halfway through the interview, as Sirhan recalls his reprieve from Death Row and discusses in some detail whether he should be paroled. ‘Obviously, there’s a lot of public opinion out there that says never’, says Frost:

Well…if I were a monster, I would say never. If I were a mass-murderer, I would say never. If I were a serial murderer, I would say never. But to punish me for one single act, a criminal act as heinous and as onerous as it was…it just doesn’t seem fair. Of some hundred men who were with me on Death Row, Mr. Frost, 43 of them have been released on parole and are on the streets now and many of the remaining ones have been found suitable by the California Parole Board and have release dates. I just wonder what would be so egregious about, you know, being humane and merciful and carrying out as impartially towards me as you would carry it out towards other formerly condemned men.

The US broadcast ended with a telephone vote asking viewers ‘Should Sirhan Sirhan be Paroled?’ Host Bill O’Reilly expressed surprise that of almost 200,000 votes cast, a quarter favoured parole. That was twenty-seven years ago.


Justice and Compassion

Today, I’m posting Sirhan Sirhan’s closing statement from his previous parole hearing in 2011 – abruptly curtailed by the commissioner – followed by a statement from William Weisel, one of the shooting victims, who voiced no objection to Sirhan being paroled.

I’m very pleased to say that Paul Schrade, a close friend of Bobby Kennedy and his family, will attend this year’s hearing. Paul stood beside RFK during his victory speech and then walked behind him into the pantry, where he was shot in the head by Sirhan and his friend Bob was assassinated.

Paul Schrade wounded Q77.25

Now 91, he has led a campaign to reopen the case for over forty years, based on eyewitness evidence that Sirhan could not have fired the fatal shot described in Kennedy’s autopsy and an analysis of the only known audio recording of the shooting which indicates thirteen shots – and two guns – were fired. Paul recently worked with Bobby Kennedy’s family to turn the Ambassador Hotel into the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex and will address Sirhan and the parole board at the end of the hearing.

Both Weisel and Schrade embody the values of justice, understanding and compassion championed by Bobby Kennedy but noticeably lacking in Sirhan’s parole process over the last thirty-four years.