LOS ANGELES -- Sirhan B. Sirhan was found guilty today of first degree murder for the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The jury must now decide on punishment -- life or death.
The seven men and five women, who deliberated 16 hours and 42 minutes before reaching their verdict, found the young Arab was mentally capable of mature premeditation before shooting down the senator last June 5. As the verdict was announced Sirhan, who had been nervously chewing at his fingers, stared straight ahead and showed no emotion.
After a one-day recess, the same jurors will hear arguments as to whether Sirhan's fate should be life in prison or a sentence to the gas chamber at San Quentin. The penalty phase is expected to last only a few days in contrast to the 15-week trial.
The prosecution already had announced it would not see the death penalty but would tell the jurors either sentence would be just.
Jury foreman Bruce D. Elliott handed the paper with the verdict to a bailiff who showed it to Judge Herbert V. Walker and then passed it to Mrs. Alice Nishikawa, the court clerk, who read it as the 25-year-old Sirhan listened intently.
"We the jury ... find the defendant, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, guilty of murder in violation of Section 187, penal code, a felony as charged in Count 1 of the indictment. We further find it to be murder in the first degree," she intoned.
Sirhan also was found guilty of assault with intent to kill in the wounding of five other persons hit in the fusillade of eight shots the tiny Palestinian immigrant fired in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel the night of Kennedy's victory in the California presidential primary.
Although the jury will decide on the sentence of life or death -- and it must be unanimous as was the verdict -- there appeared great doubt that Sirhan would ever be executed.
Not a single convicted criminal has been executed in the United States in the past two years and there are more than 80 persons in San Quentin's death row who are awaiting sentence.
If the jury finds Sirhan guilty of first degree murder and sets the penalty at death in the gas chamber the sentence automatically would be reviewed by the state Supreme Court.
Chief defense attorney Grant B. Cooper said if the state court upheld the sentence he would appeal it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
If the jury should come back with a sentence of life imprisonment, Sirhan under California law would be eligible for parole in seven years.
Cooper, who said in his final argument that he felt Sirhan should spend the rest of his days in the penitentiary, asserts that American public opinion will see to it that the assassin is never released. The lawyer said the only circumstances in which he could foresee Sirhan's release would be if the United States were to "trade" him for some American in captivity in an Arab state.
The first degree murder verdict was in a bizarre way a victory for Sirhan.
The former racetrack exercise boy has denied all along that he was seriously ill mentally and told psychiatrists he wanted to be a hero in the eyes of the Arab world, a martyr.
The defendant did contend he could not remember the actual shooting or writing in a notebook threats to kill Kennedy because the senator had promised to send 50 Phantom jet bombers to Israel if elected president.
The jury obviously believed chief prosecutor Lynn Compton's argument that Sirhan was a liar failing back on his "amnesia" to avoid execution.
The prosecution and trial is estimated to have cost the state more than $1 million.
Its biggest achievement was that it removed any shadow of doubt about the assassination -- unlike the tragic death in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy who also fell from a bullet in the brain but whose assassin never told his story.