California’s parole board voted Friday to free Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin after two of RFK’s sons said they supported releasing him and prosecutors declined to argue he should be kept behind bars. But the governor ultimately will decide if Sirhan Sirhan leaves prison.
Douglas Kennedy was a toddler when his father was gunned down in 1968. He told a two-person board panel that he was moved to tears by Sirhan’s remorse and that the 77-year-old should be released if he’s not a threat to others.
“I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr. Sirhan face to face,” he said. “I’ve lived my life both in fear of him and his name in one way or another. And I am grateful today to see him as a human being worthy of compassion and love.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has spoken in favor of Sirhan’s release in the past and met with him in prison, wrote in favor of paroling Sirhan.
“While nobody can speak definitively on behalf of my father, I firmly believe that based on his own consuming commitment to fairness and justice, that he would strongly encourage this board to release Mr. Sirhan because of Sirhan’s impressive record of rehabilitation,” he said in a letter submitted to the board.
Sirhan smiled, thanked the board and gave a thumbs-up after the decision to grant parole was announced. It was a major victory in his 16th attempt at parole. But it does not assure his release.
The ruling will be reviewed over the next 90 days by the board’s staff. Then it will be sent to the governor, who will have 30 days to decide whether to grant it, reverse it or modify it. If Sirhan is freed, he must live in a transitional home for six months, enroll in an alcohol abuse program and get therapy.
Robert F. Kennedy was a a U.S. senator from New York and the brother of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. RFK was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination when he was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after delivering a victory speech in the pivotal California primary. Five others were wounded.
Sirhan, who insists he doesn't remember the shooting and had been drinking alcohol just beforehand, was convicted of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death after his conviction, but that sentence was commuted to life when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972.
At his last parole hearing in 2016, commissioners concluded after more than three hours of intense testimony that Sirhan did not show adequate remorse or understand the enormity of his crime.
This time, prosecutors declined to participate or oppose Sirhan’s release under a policy by Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, a former police officer who took office last year after running on a reform platform. Gascón, who said he idolized the Kennedys and mourned RFK’s assassination, believes the prosecutors’ role ends at sentencing and they should not influence decisions to release prisoners.
The Los Angeles Police Department, relatives of some of the victims and members of the public submitted letters opposing Sirhan’s release, Parole Board Commissioner Robert Barton said at the start of Friday’s proceeding, held virtually with Sirhan appearing on camera from a San Diego County prison.
“We don’t have a DA here, but I have to consider all sides,” Barton said, noting it would consider arguments made in the past by prosecutors opposing his release, depending on their relevance.
Sirhan's lawyer, Angela Berry, said the board should base its decision on who Sirhan is today and not what he did more than 50 years ago. She said he is not a threat to the public.
Sirhan said he had learned to control his anger and was committed to living peacefully.
“I would never put myself in jeopardy again,” he told the panel. “You have my pledge. I will always look to safety and peace and non-violence.”
Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian from Jordan, has acknowledged he was angry at Kennedy for his support of Israel. When asked about how he feels about the Middle East conflict today, Sirhan broke down crying and temporarily couldn’t speak.
“Take a few deep breaths,” said Barton, who noted the conflict had not gone away and still touched a nerve.
Sirhan said he doesn't follow what's going on in the region but thinks about the suffering of refugees.
“The misery that those people are experiencing. It’s painful,” Sirhan said.
If released, Sirhan could be deported to Jordan, and Barton said he was concerned he might become a “symbol or lightning rod to foment more violence.”
Sirhan said he was too old to be involved in the Middle East conflict and would detach himself from it.
“The same argument can be said or made that I can be a peacemaker and a contributor to a friendly nonviolent way of resolving the issue,” said Sirhan, who told the panel the hoped to live with his blind brother in Pasadena, California.
Paul Schrade, a union leader and aide to RFK who was among five people wounded in the 1968 shooting, also spoke in favor of Sirhan's release.
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