Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

As Ever, a Conspiracy

"The first step towards philosophy is incredulity."

— Denis Diderot

American history is riddled with conspiracies. After John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, many believed he was part of a mammoth Confederate plot to crumble the national government. When Lee Harvey Oswald murdered President Kennedy, tomes followed, blaming larger enterprises as the real perpetrators of the crime — chief among the villains were the Russians, the Mafia, even American corporations. Not long after, scholars began putting pen to paper deliberating the reasons why James Earl Ray's killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not the act of a single bigot. Some theories regarding each of these (to coin a familiar phrase) "dark moments" are so credible that they have gained enduring popularity. Others are preposterous and have fallen apart under easy scrutiny. But, all in all, the continuum tells us one thing: that human nature loves a conspiracy.

Robert Francis Kennedy
Robert Francis Kennedy

That is why, 31 years later, doubts continue to plague the accepted history of the assassination of Robert Francis Kennedy. When Palestinian-born Sirhan Sirhan's .22 caliber pistol ended the life of the New York senator; with the echo of his gunfire came a discordant series of whodunits and why-sos. The ink on the Warren Commission's final report, which left the nation unconvinced that Oswald acted alone in killing the President JFK, was barely dry when his younger brother was also struck down in an equally unprepared moment in history. Unprepared and off-balance.

At the advent of the 1960s, the country was just beginning to pedal into a transition in society, culture and morals that weakened the public's take-life-for-granted attitude; things were changing and doubt in the future was already permeating ways of life. In short, skepticism was clawing into American values. The white picket fence of normality was in need of a paint job, sooted with the grease of a technology moving too fast. Then came Dallas 1963, and John Kennedy reminded us that even heroes are mortal. Camelot faded and its knights went off to Vietnam. Their mothers cried, hearing their boys were lost to jungle rot and napalm. On-campus demonstrations against violence shed blood (a contradiction) on student's handbooks. And, in the meantime, civil rights parades generated even more Archie Bunkers (another contradiction). What the United States once stood for now gagged under the incense of rebellion, marijuana, LSD and psychokinetics. Puff the Magic Dragon lost his innocence, Jackie Paper went AWOL to Canada. But, not to worry, because prisms of lava light and neon peace signs made everything look actually beautiful.

But, doubt still existed in the strength of George Washington's pedestal, the one he left America to stand on, and enforced after a hundred years by Honest Abe. A President had been shot in November, 1963 — and there were no real answers. A beloved civil rights leader was killed in April, 1968 — and there were no real answers. And then, just as American ideals were already "shod with marble," the most popular nominee in the 1968 Presidential Primary Race was shot in the head. The nation no longer seemed able to fend for itself.

"For its part, the government appeared powerless to stop the political violence, and the American judicial system seemed unable to cope with these events after the fact," write the authors of Shadow Play, William Klaber and Philip H. Melanson. "It then fell to the prosecutors and defenders of Sirhan Sirhan to reassert the authority and integrity of American justice...but, in doing so, they became careless with the truth."

While Klaber and Melanson lean towards the idea of a conspiracy, Dan E. Moldea in The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy, merely ponders both the established facts and the theories — well-researched — and leaves the reader to his or her own conclusions. Says Moldea, "At first, indeed, the (Robert Kennedy) case appeared to be open and shut. An ostensibly impressive police investigation found no conspiracy and concluded that Sirhan had acted alone. However, responsible critics of the official inquiry later uncovered serious problems with the conduct of the probe. They based their criticisms on eyewitness testimonies and challenges to the existing physical evidence."

The following pages relive the night of the assassination and then, objectively, re-examine particular components of the investigation — the autopsy findings, the girl in the polka-dot dress, the possibility of a "second gunman," and more.

The nation has, since then, shaken off much of the tension of the Vietnam era; much of what was unhappy has been settled or at least improved. We are in a more conservative and less-emotional tenure, but, because Americans love a conspiracy, the "facts" of the Robert Kennedy assassination linger.



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