Judge Jim Thomas has his doubts about a CIA conspiracy-which is just what the CIA wants you to believe.
Did the CIA Kill Bobby Kennedy?
Lost in the shadow of the questions surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy are the equally perplexing questions surrounding the assassination of his younger brother Bobby. Many of the theories around RFK's death parallel those of JFK-Mafia payback for broken promises, Castro, the industrial-military complex, Teamsters…Dismissing the official report that Sirhan Sirhan acted alone, writer-director Shane O'Sullivan conducted his own investigation, tracking down as many surviving witnesses as possible, poring over photographs and video, talking with experts, etc. O'Sullivan posits a CIA conspiracy to kill RFK, a conspiracy built around the brainwashing of Sirhan. The motive is simple-power. The CIA answered to no one at the time, and they feared that a RFK presidency would sharply reduce their autonomy. O'Sullivan manages to raise some legitimate questions, particularly concerning the initial investigation, but never quite creates a compelling case.
From a structural perspective, O'Sullivan does an excellent job presenting his case. He takes time to establish RFK's political history, so that by the time O'Sullivan gets to the assassination, even viewers unfamiliar with RFK can appreciate the man's charisma, his idealism, and the way in which he captured the public's imagination. The film then examines the questions surrounding the shooting, segueing into the argument concerning the possibility of CIA involvement.
The conspiracy theory itself, though, isn't quite as solidly structured. The first question is perhaps the most important. With five minutes left in Kennedy's victory speech, campaign manager Eddie Dutton changed RFK's route from the stage; instead of going to another ballroom, he went back through the kitchen area. It's clearly an important question, possibly the most important question, as it was the last-minute change brought RFK into the kill zone. The explanation was that Dutton wanted to get RFK to a press conference to try and get as much coverage of the victory as possible. It's a good, sensible explanation, and the documentary does nothing to suggest another option, or to even suggest that Dutton was involved in the conspiracy.
Beyond that, the first hurdle is establishing the necessity of a second gunman; and here we run into the first obstacle-the malleable nature of memory. One of the arguments for a second shooter is that the autopsy report states that the fatal bullet was fired into Kennedy's skull at an upwards angle from point blank range just behind his right ear. Sirhan, however, was to the side of Kennedy, and witnesses put him at anywhere from two to six feet away from Kennedy. But in an interview for this documentary, Vincent Di Pierro, a waiter standing next to Sirhan when he started shooting, stated that Sirhan had crouched down, as though he were having stomach cramps, then turned, extended the gun, and lunged forward towards Kennedy, with the gun being no more than six inches or so from Kennedy. That would put the gun in roughly the correct position to have delivered the fatal bullet. O'Sullivan offers a number of reasons that Di Pierro's recollections might be inaccurate, but everything that is said about Di Pierro's memory also holds true for all of the other witnesses as well. The issue remains cloudy, but Di Pierro's on camera statement is compelling, particularly since the other witness statements are drawn from the police record, not interviews (Not surprisingly, many of the key players had died by the time this documentary was made). The extensive use of Di Pierro throughout establishes that O'Sullivan finds him credible-and now O'Sullivan tries to undermine that credibility? Curiously, O'Sullivan does not interview Rosey Grier or Rafer Johnson, who actually grabbed and subdued Sirhan (Grier was as a bodyguard for RFK).
O'Sullivan has better luck establishing that the investigation was rushed-there are tapes of witnesses being badgered into recanting any statements that suggested that Sirhan did not act alone, there is photographic evidence of additional gunshots. Most troublesome was the report of a man and a woman seen leaving the hotel, laughing and saying "We killed him." The rushed nature of the investigation, more than anything else, makes a conspiracy theory more plausible. (~20 years ago, a biography of Ted Kennedy argued that both JFK and RFK had been mafia hits, and that the Kennedys pushed for a quick close to the investigation, lest the mafia target other family members.)
A key problem in the documentary is the extensive use of statements by Lawrence Teeter, Sirhan's most recent defense attorney. Teeter's overzealous defense of Sirhan undermines his credibility; for instance, he claims that Thane Cesar, a hotel security guard next to Kennedy should have been the number one suspect. Excuse me? While it's true that one witness reported that Cesar had fired a weapon, Sirhan was apprehended in the act of firing a gun at Kennedy. From that point on, Teeter's statements-and he makes most of the connections in the conspiracy theory-have to be taken with a grain of salt. The biggest stretch is the claim that Sirhan was brainwashed. The psychiatrist defending the brainwashing theory provides video of a hypnotized subject saying something contrary to his beliefs, but that proves nothing. Speech is a far cry from murder. More plausible explanations abound, such as dementia or paranoid-schizophrenia. The documentary features a first-ever interview with Sirhan's brother Munir, who paints a picture of Sirhan as a fairly ordinary guy until he suffered a head injury while training to become a jockey. The bottom line is that it is too easy to see Sirhan as cut from the same cloth as Mark David Chapman or John Hinckley, and not as a pawn for the CIA or anyone else. The film goes to great lengths to make the case for CIA involvement, but without even marginally persuasive evidence concerning brainwashing or Sirhan's contact with the CIA, the result is little more than supposition.
Some years ago I got into a heated argument with a colleague over the merits of Oliver Stone's JFK. Don claimed that the events happened exactly as Stone had depicted them; to me, though, Stone's version of events seemed a little bit too complicated for its own good. On the other hand, though, the movie did do a good job of pointing out the flaws in the Warren Commission's report. I feel pretty much the same way about RFK Must Die. The suggested conspiracy is much too convoluted, but the legitimacy of the official report remains severely compromised. Barring some truly earthshaking revelation, I seriously doubt that we'll ever learn the truth behind either crime; however, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't stop looking.
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