Ever since he was seized with a .22-caliber revolver in his hand in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in June 1968, Sirhan Sirhan has maintained he was hypnotized into shooting Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
The contention was discounted by the jury, which, after deliberating for 16 1/2 hours, found him "alone and not in concert with anyone else" guilty of murder in the first degree. Almost everyone who studied the case subsequently agreed.
But nearly 40 years later, the story refuses to die. In recent months, several people have emerged to suggest that Sirhan may have been telling the truth; that he may have been hypnotized into becoming a "Manchurian Candidate"-style assassin. The catalyst for the campaign is a new book, "Nemesis," by British author Peter Evans, who, using CIA documents and interviews, claims to have identified the hypnotist as Dr. William Joseph Bryan, who had worked on CIA mind-control programs and who was later found dead in a Las Vegas hotel room in mysterious circumstances.
Is it nuts? Another meaningless conspiracy theory? You be the judge. Celebrities and journalists -- Robert Vaughn and Dominick Dunne among them -- have taken up the case and are pressing the federal government to open an investigation into the case. Vaughn, who was a good friend of Sen. Kennedy's (and who starred in the long-running television series "The Man From U.N.C.L.E"), has sent a copy of the book to Sirhan. In his accompanying letter he told Sirhan: "It contains important new information about your case that I believe substantiates your claims of having been hypnotized at the time of the shooting and also produces the first credible evidence of motivation and method.... Important people are talking of it opening the door to a long overdue federal investigation into the assassination."
Sirhan's lawyer, Lawrence Teeter, has always maintained that his client was under hypnosis at the time of the shooting. Now he has filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court in connection with the demolition of the Ambassador Hotel. He says the pantry must not be destroyed because, he claims, bullet holes in the walls and ceiling demonstrate conclusively that more than one gunman fired shots at Kennedy.
Both Evans and Teeter argue that Sirhan was there as the "patsy" to be either arrested or, preferably, shot to death by police while the real assassin escaped. They both agree that although Sirhan fired some shots before he was wrestled down, none of them hit Kennedy.
Evans contends Sirhan was hypnotized during a three-month period known as the "white fog" when the police task force later investigating the assassination -- and trying to construct a meticulous timetable of Sirhan's activities up to the shooting -- lost track of him. Evans quotes LAPD Detective Bill Jordan, who was Sirhan's first interrogator, as saying the investigators were unable to penetrate the "white fog" surrounding the 12-week gap, about which Sirhan appeared to have total amnesia.
Evans also reproduces parts of Sirhan's diary that contain what he says are "trance-like" entries and which some psychiatrists he interviewed identified as "automatic writing" -- a technique sometimes used by hypnotherapists to implant ideas in the subconscious of a hypnotized patient.
Hypnotism is considered hokum by many, but others argue that it has been effectively used to help smokers give up the habit, cure sleep disorders and reduce stress and for other purposes. It is also now accepted in many quarters that hypnotism was used by the CIA and military intelligence as part of a U.S. government program to enable handlers to make people commit crimes with no knowledge of what they were doing.
For the moment, few credible historians or students of the assassination are signing on to this latest version. "The Manchurian Candidate," the satirical novel by Richard Condon about a U.S. soldier brainwashed by communists into becoming a political assassin, was, in their opinion, nothing more than a work of fiction. But to hear Evans and Co. tell it, his premise may have been unsettlingly accurate.