Trials: Behind Steel Doors

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The frail young man in the grey suit, blue shirt and dark tie rocks slightly in the big leather swivel chair. Occasionally he throws a salute to his grey-faced mother Mary and two brothers, Munir and Adel. The windows of the courtroom are sealed with quarter-inch steel armor plate, and the lighting overhead accentuates his dark stubble, arching cheek bones and deep-set eyes.

As the arguments swing back and forth before him, he smiles hopefully when his side wins a point, frowns when the opposition scores. For Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, the 24-year-old Jordanian immigrant, the trial that began last week will determine whether he was, as charged, the assassin who gunned down Senator Robert Kennedy in a pantry of Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel. If found guilty of first-degree murder, he could die in the gas chamber or spend the remainder of his days in a prison cell.

As they have since that tragic summer night, the Los Angeles authorities are going to extraordinary extremes to make certain that their city does not become another Dallas. Only 75 witnesses, sheriffs and newsmen are allowed in the 8th floor courtroom of the Hall of Justice. Others must watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV four floors below.

After showing a seat pass, reporters going to the courtroom are ushered by helmeted deputies to two successive steel doors, each manned by a deputy, who peers through a wire-glass window. Pockets must be emptied, purses checked. Handkerchiefs are shaken, contact-lens fluid sniffed, ballpoint pen cartridges removed and examined. Everyone is frisked, and then a deputy passes a metal-detecting device over each person. The deputies themselves are scrupulously searched before every session.

Textbook Study. From the opening day, it was clear that the trial would be a classic of criminal jurisprudence. Sirhan attracted three of the country's most successful lawyers: Los Angeles' Grant B. Cooper and Russell E. Parsons, New Yorker Emile Zola Berman (see box). The prosecution's three-man team is led by Chief Deputy District Attorney Lynn "Buck" Compton, former U.C.L.A. football star and World War II hero. Presiding is Superior Court Judge Herbert V. Walker, 69, who plans to retire in July. During the course of the first three days, the defense's tactics were clearly displayed. These were to lay groundwork for an eventual appeal and to try for a further postponement. Judge Walker noted that the trial had already been continued four times, and he denied a series of intricate defense motions.

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