The Bentley Historical Library will close at 12:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 26.

Magazine

Defending Sirhan Sirhan

by Dan Shine

There are not many people who would describe the gunman behind one of the most infamous assassinations in such kind terms. But Abdeen Jabara, now age 77 and living in Manhattan, got to know Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of killing Bobby Kennedy in 1968, better than most.

“He is a caring, sensitive person,” Jabara says of Sirhan, whom he represented during the appeal of his conviction and death sentence.

Jabara, who has spent a career in and out of the courtroom fighting for the civil rights of Arabs and Arab Americans, has been donating his papers to the Bentley Historical Library for several years. He has added material over time to complete the collection, which is now open to the public.

The materials pertaining to his defense of Sirhan include court documents, investigative reports, notes from the case, interviews with Sirhan’s family, arguments addressed to the jury, and press clippings.

The collection also includes his challenge to the practice of surveilling and collecting information on Arabs and Arab Americans by Detroit and Michigan State Police and the FBI. He successfully sued to have his FBI file destroyed because it was a violation of his constitutional rights.

Donating History

When Jabara closed his law practice in 1986 and moved to Washington, D.C., he put all his files in his sister’s basement. He knew someone who taught at U-M, who encouraged him to donate the papers to the Bentley. His collection was processed and opened to the public earlier this year.

“Otherwise, they’d still be in that basement,” Jabara says with a chuckle. “They weren’t doing anybody any good there. And I guess I didn’t appreciate, as I do now, the historical value that they do have.”

Jabara was raised in the small, northwest Michigan town of Mancelona to Lebanese immigrant parents. When he was 10, he was injured and his father killed in a car accident. “It had a profound impact on me,” Jabara says. “He was a patriarchal figure.”

He enrolled at U-M and graduated in 1962, taking six months off during his studies to immerse himself in the Arabic language in Egypt. He then went to Wayne State Law School and, after graduating in 1965, opened a law practice in Detroit.

In June 1967, the Arab-Israeli War broke out. “This had a huge impact on my whole being as it did on Sirhan,” Jabara said. “That’s where we get to this connection.”

The Issue of Oppression

Sirhan was four years old and living in a four-bedroom house in Jerusalem when the state of Israel was created in 1948. According to Jabara, Sirhan said Jewish settlers committed acts of violence and terror in the city to force Palestinians to leave. Sirhan’s family fled to a convent outside of Jerusalem; they eventually returned to a one-room apartment in the city after the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan annexed that part of Palestine.

It took nearly 10 years for the family to find a sponsor in the U.S., but eventually Sirhan, his two brothers, and his parents emigrated from Palestine in 1957 (three other siblings would join them two years later). But after six months in the U.S., Sirhan’s father abandoned the family and returned to Palestine.

Even though Sirhan was now safely in the U.S., what happened to him and his family in Palestine stayed with him. When he was arrested after the assassination, Jabara says there was a newspaper clipping in Sirhan’s pocket that discussed the incongruity of Kennedy’s advocacy for the oppressed while also supporting Israel over Palestine.

At the time of Kennedy’s assassination, Jabara was practicing law in Detroit and was beginning to develop a reputation for his involvement in Palestinian and Arab American issues. The Sirhan family contacted an Arab American lawyer in Long Beach, California, who then contacted Jabara.

Jabara was not a member of Sirhan’s defense team, but he attended the trial every day, met with Sirhan, and interacted with one of his lawyers.

“My concern was to what extent Sirhan’s and his family’s experience in Palestine played a role in what happened,” Jabara says. “And if it played a role, it should be exposed; it shouldn’t be swept under the rug for political expediency. So I went there to monitor the situation and to ascertain if Sirhan’s defense was tailored in the best way to secure justice for him.”

Jabara says Sirhan was experiencing a severe mental condition at the time of the shooting, which was linked to the trauma he experienced as a young boy in Jerusalem “and the tragedy that befell the entire Palestinian people.”

When Sirhan was found guilty and sentenced to death, he dismissed his attorneys and appointed Jabara, the Long Beach attorney, and another appellate lawyer to handle his appeal. Jabara says he received criticism back home for representing Sirhan, with opponents claiming he was doing it only for publicity and some friends being embarrassed to say they knew him.

This past May, shortly before the 50th anniversary of the assassination, Kennedy’s son, Robert Kennedy Jr., visited Sirhan in prison. The younger Kennedy said that, after months of investigation, he believes there was a second gunman in the kitchen area of the Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel and supports a reinvestigation of the assassination.

Jabara says he cannot be certain there was not some sort of conspiracy, but has little doubt Sirhan shot Kennedy. “Sirhan never said there was somebody else,” Jabara says.

Nevertheless, he is not opposed to re-opening the investigation as long as “all facts are put on the table, including who Sirhan is, and why he is the way he is.” He adds, “You can’t look at him as just an assassin. If you do, then you miss all that he is and all that he experienced.”