TELEVISION / Shot in the dark

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The Independent Culture
IS THERE any being on earth more gullible than an investigative reporter with the scent of a scoop in his nostrils? The question is prompted by Secret History's (C 4) report on the assassination of Robert Kennedy, which, despite turning up some unsettling discrepancies in the official account of the killing, marred its case by its blinkered attitude to contradictory evidence.

Anyway, there we were, back in a maze of trajectory diagrams, bullet counts, eyewitness statements, lone gunmen and missing evidence - Oliver Stone may have worked the JFK mine to exhaustion, you felt, but Tim Tate has discovered a promising seam just over the hill. The story is very similar - one of promise cut down (Robert Kennedy had just won the California primary) and of a system poisoned by lies ('Don't you think it's about time we were told the truth?' Tate appealed at the end). The CIA did this one too, apparently.

Tate's case was built on the discrepancy between eye-witness accounts, which placed Sirhan Sirhan in front of Kennedy, and the autopsy findings, which had the fatal bullets entering from the rear of the head. There were also traces of gunpowder on Kennedy's ear, though witnesses said that Sirhan was at least three feet away. This seemed fairly conclusive - even given the milling confusion in the kitchen where the shots were fired. Then Tate triumphantly produced evidence which forced you to think again; tapes of police reconstructions based on eye-witness accounts.

You were told that what you saw was proof of Tate's thesis. But what you saw was the figure representing Kennedy turn aside for a moment (to shake hands with a kitchen worker), and a figure representing Sirhan reach across another man to put a gun to the side of his head. If this reconstruction was accurate then it clearly showed that the autopsy report and eyewitness accounts could be consistent. The merest turn of Kennedy's head would have allowed for a rear entry wound, while a gunman who stretches out his arm can be three feet from his victim and yet the muzzle will be only inches away. Another eyewitness, again rolled on for the prosecution, said 'I saw the gun at the top of his head', an ambiguous remark, but one hard to square with the suggestion that Sirhan never got close. Interestingly, though the reconstructions were presented as devastating for the official case, they had not influenced the stylish computer graphics with which Tate presented his case. Here the men were shown face to face, a positioning which conveniently derailed the police version.

Tate was equally uncritical of the other elements of his case. Several witnesses said they had seen a young woman in a white polka dot dress running from the scene saying 'We shot him'. When asked who, the woman answered 'We shot Robert Kennedy'. There was striking tape of a witness being badgered to change her account of this, evidence that police statements had been altered, and also that an alert to police units to look for the woman had been cancelled. But though it is just about conceivable that a CIA-trained assassin would, in the heat of the moment, announce to bystanders what she had done, it is surely incredible that she would pause in mid-flight to answer questions.

Other details - the destruction of photographs taken during the shooting, the evidence of more bullets at the scene than were in Sirhan's gun, the arrival of CIA men to take up the investigation - couldn't be set aside so easily. If you were an appeal judge you would probably re-open the case - but not until you'd given Tate a brisk dressing-down for his shoddy presentation of the evidence.