The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

My father, Ronald, is a graduate of USC. At the time of my fatherís graduation, Robert F. Kennedy was running for the Democratic Nomination for President of the United States. While Ronald was attending his class graduation ceremony on June 5, 1968, an announcement was made that Robert Kennedy had been shot while campaigning in the streets of Los Angeles. While the whole nation was deeply saddened, it is what came after that makes Ronaldís story interesting. In preparing for law school, Ronald was able to work with the Chief Defense Counsel in the trial for the assassin Sirhan Sirhan. In his unique story, Ronald talks about his relation to Kennedy, involvement with the trial, and the feelings of himself and others.

When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated I was actually graduating from U.S.C. And, during the graduation ceremonies, we heard that he had been assassinated. As it turned out, most of the people were so shocked that they began crying.

Robert F. Kennedy was the brother of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, and at that time Robert Kennedy was running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. He had been Attorney General of the United States, and a former United States Senator from New York.

I met Robert Kennedy when he came to speak on the U.S.C. campus, and I did have a brief conversation with himÖjust the two of us. We talked about his upcoming trip, and how it was meant to foster better relations between the United States and uh, Latin America. This was a relationship that had been very positive in terms of the Alliance for Progress that had been initiated by President Kennedy.

My best friend in college was John Cooper. His father was a famous criminal defense attorney by the name of Grant Cooper. At the graduation party Johnís father let us know that he most likely was going to be the Chief Defense Counsel for the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan. Subsequently he was uh, chosen. Several months in planning and preparing the defense of Sirhan Sirhan were necessary. As it turned out, uh both his son John Cooper and I had been accepted to Loyola Law School, and began our preparation for our first year of law school which included our first um year of Criminal Law. We took advantage of the offer of Johnís father to have tutoring every week uh at his fatherís home. And so we had very informal sessions, at uh his home, and as you can imagine, the conversation would inevitably turn to and center upon the uh, the upcoming trial. We also would spend at least uh two nights a week at, at Mr. Cooperís home, and in turn we were able to repay his kindness in assisting us with our studies by helping him in preparing some of the exhibits for the trial. We kind of helped him formulate his defense strategy. This was a real unique opportunity that I had to be involved in uh probably one of the most important trials involving a world figure that the United States had witnessed by that time, and certainly involving uh a family whose dynasty in America became legendary.

Grant Cooper actually believed that uh, Sirhan Sirhan did shoot Robert Kennedy. And at that time, it was, it was uh, not something that you, you could dispute. So, all that could be attempted was to explain why he did it, and uh why he should not be given the maximum punishment for what he did. Ordinarily someone who had been charged with uh a homicide has to be able to appreciate the consequences of his action. And so, to this extent um, Grant Cooper felt that Sirhanís capacity for understanding the nature and consequences of his acts was diminished, and it had been diminished because of a lot of, of uh events in his life that had uh affected his mental state. So the uh theory of diminished capacity as a defensible argument was formulated and used in this particular trial.

Actually, theÖthe theory of diminished capacity that had been presented to the jury uh by Mr. Cooper and the defense team was um well articulated. I do believe that the uh arguments uh for diminished capacity did uh some influence uh at an appellate level. The California Supreme Court uh, ruled that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment. So, the death penalty was stopped for a period of years in California. Really the defense argument was not meant to necessarily and particularly influence the jury as much as it was to influence judges and uh, appellate review.

I think itís important to recognize that uh had Robert Kennedy lived, he would have had a uh, uh very good chance of winning the Presidency. Uh, we really donít know what would have happened to the world had Robert Kennedy been President as opposed to uh, Richard Nixon. But we certainly know that policies would have been different, and we might have taken a different course. Um, me personallyÖI was uh deeply saddened and I, I think felt a certain responsibility that I would have to uh be committed to public service in one way or another.

Now where I work, uh is pretty close to the Ambassador Hotel. And just about every day when I walk to lunch, I walk by in front of the now vacant and fenced site of the Ambassador Hotel where Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Itís an eerie feeling knowing that this location that uh was the site of, of such an event that changed the world. It has still not really been preserved as any type of memorial, but it is a constant reminder to us of what happened that fateful day in 1968.

I only want to add that through this experience in my life, I have gained a deeper appreciation for our system of justice and the legal rights to which we all are entitled as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America. While I was initially shocked that my best friendís father would defend the killer of uh, such a notable man of our time, I learned that even those accused of the most egregious offenses still have rights and are offered protections equally under the law. It is our legal system that allows us to enjoy freedoms that are unparalleled in human history, and the uh, defense of Constitutional rights guarantees that those freedoms will endure.

Interviewed by David B.