The opening defense gambit in Sir-ban Bishara Sirhan's murder trial was a variant of the tactics often used by those accused of "crimes of passion." But instead of claiming that "everything went black" at the moment of the crime, Sirhan's attorneys contended last week that the defendant was "in a trance" when he fired the shots that killed Senator Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel.
In his opening statement for the defense, Attorney Emile Zola Berman described Sirhan, 24, as an "immature, emotionally disturbed and mentally ill youth." Sirhan's behavior in court sometimes seemed to bear him out. He smirked, grinned and chatted with his attorneys. He gave the impression of enjoying a good story at times; other times he seemed not to be listening at all. When Berman related the Jordanian's long list of failures in school, in work and in life, Sirhan stiffened and angrily whispered protests to his other lawyers. Later, one attorney explained that Sirhan had not read Berman's statement before it was delivered, and "when you're saying unkind things about him, he doesn't like it." Berman later claimed that Sirhan actually "admired and loved" Kennedy until the day the Senator said that he favored sending 50 Phantom jets to Israel. As always, Sirhan's mother, Mary, was in court.
Berman, who is a New Yorker and a Jew, spoke with compassion of the woes of the Palestinian Arabs (he pronounced the word "Ay-rab" and referred to Sirhan as "Saran"). He dramatically underlined the word "intoxicated" (". . . while in a disturbed mental state, intoxicated and confused . . ."), an indication that the defense intends to bolster the contention that Sirhan was "out of contact with reality." This condition was induced, Berman said, when Sirhan "concentrated in front of a mirror in his own room and thought and thought about Senator Kennedy until at last he saw his own face no longer, but that of Senator Kennedy."
Six-Dollar Chip. The opening statement for the prosecution by Deputy District Attorney David Fitts was factual and low-keyed. It included the detail that Sirhan had chipped in only $6 in the purchase by his brother Munir of the $25 murder weapon. Fitts also noted that the day before the shooting, Sirhan went to the San Gabriel Valley Gun Range for target practice. While on the range, one Mike Soccoman asked Sirhan what he intended to do with the small Iver Johnson .22-cal. pistol. Sirhan said he could use it for hunting, adding: "It could kill a dog." Ballistics evidence revealed that the fatal shot was fired into Kennedy's head from a distance of approximately one inch. Later, one of the prosecutors, Lynn Compton, said that Sirhan had "stalked" Kennedy for days.