Jan 13, 2022 11:00 PM

California governor denies RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan parole

Posted Jan 13, 2022 11:00 PM
Sirhan photo California Dept. of Corrections
Sirhan photo California Dept. of Corrections

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s governor on Thursday rejected releasing Robert F. Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan from prison more than a half-century after the 1968 slaying left a deep wound during one of America’s darkest times.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has cited RFK as his “political hero” and embraced the historical significance of his decision, rejected a recommendation from a two-person panel of parole commissioners. Newsom said Sirhan, now 77, poses an unreasonable threat to public safety.

“Mr. Sirhan’s assassination of Senator Kennedy is among the most notorious crimes in American history,” Newsom wrote in his decision. “After decades in prison, he has failed to address the deficiencies that led him to assassinate Senator Kennedy. Mr. Sirhan lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the same types of dangerous decisions he made in the past.”

He said factors in his decision including Sirhan’s refusal to accept responsibility for his crime, his lack of insight and the accountability required to support his safe release, his failure to disclaim violence committed in his name, and his failure to mitigate his risk factors.

Kennedy, the U.S. senator from New York, was shot moments after he claimed victory in California’s pivotal Democratic presidential primary. Five others were wounded during the assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The slaying took place five years after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated.

Sirhan will be scheduled for a new parole hearing no later than February 2023.

Sirhan will ask a judge to overturn Newsom’s denial, said his defense attorney, Angela Berry.

“We fully expect that judicial review of the governor’s decision will show that the governor got it wrong,” she said.

State law holds that inmates are supposed to be paroled unless they pose a current unreasonable public safety risk, she said, adding that “not an iota of evidence exists to suggest Mr. Sirhan is still a danger to society.”

She said the parole process has become politicized and Newsom “chose to overrule his own experts (on the parole board), ignoring the law.”

Parole commissioners found Sirhan suitable for release “because of his impressive extensive record of rehabilitation over the last half-century,” she said. “Since the mid-1980’s Mr. Sirhan has consistently been found by prison psychologists and psychiatrists to not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to the public.”

During his parole hearing, the white-haired Sirhan called Kennedy “the hope of the world.” But he stopped short of taking full responsibility for a shooting he said he doesn’t recall because he was drunk.

“It pains me ... the knowledge for such a horrible deed, if I did in fact do that,” Sirhan said.

The parole panel’s recommendation in August to release Sirhan divided the iconic Kennedy family, with two of RFK’s sons — Douglas Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — supporting his release. But six of Kennedy’s nine surviving children and Ethel Kennedy, RFK’s wife, urged Newsom to block his parole.

The panel’s decision was based in part on several new California laws since he was denied parole in 2016 — the 15th time he’d lost his bid for release.

Commissioners were required to consider that Sirhan committed his crime at a young age, when he was 24; that he now is elderly; and that the Christian Palestinian who immigrated from Jordan had suffered childhood trauma from the conflict in the Middle East.

In addition, Los Angeles County prosecutors didn’t object to his parole, following District Attorney George Gascón’s policy that prosecutors should not be involved in deciding whether prisoners are ready for release.

The decision had a personal element for Newsom, a fellow Democrat, who displays RFK photos in his official and home offices. One of them is of Kennedy with Newsom’s late father.

Newsom has previously reflected on the gravity of having Sirhan’s fate in his hands, saying it was an emotional issue that echoed back to the turbulent ’60s and reopened memories many want to forget.

Sirhan originally was sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted to life when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972.

He now has a heart condition and has survived prostate cancer, Valley fever and having his throat slashed by another prisoner in 2019, said his attorney, Angela Berry.

Munir Sirhan has said his older brother can live with him, if he is freed and not deported to Jordan. Sirhan Sirhan waived his right to fight deportation.

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — 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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