August 28, 2021 9:30:57 am
Written by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs
California parole commissioners recommended on Friday that Sirhan B. Sirhan should be freed on parole after spending more than 50 years in prison for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy during his campaign for president.
The recommendation from the two commissioners does not necessarily mean Sirhan, 77, will walk free, but it most likely puts his fate in the hands of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat facing a recall election that will determine his political future. A spokeswoman for Newsom declined to say whether he would approve the recommendation, only that he would consider the case after it is reviewed by the parole board’s lawyers.
The parole hearing was the 16th time Sirhan had faced parole board commissioners, but it was the first time no prosecutor showed up to argue for his continued imprisonment. George Gascón, the progressive and divisive Los Angeles County district attorney who was elected last year, has made it a policy for prosecutors not to attend parole hearings, saying the parole board has all the facts it needs to make an informed decision.
At the hearing, which was conducted virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sirhan said he had little memory of the assassination itself, but he said he “must have” brought the gun to the scene.
“I take responsibility for taking it in and I take responsibility for firing the shots,” he said. Sirhan, much of his short hair turned white, was seated in front of a computer and was wearing a blue uniform with a paper towel in his chest pocket.
Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Kennedy gave a speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles following his victory in the Democratic primary in California. As Kennedy, a senator from New York, walked through the hotel’s pantry, Sirhan shot him with a revolver. Five other people around Kennedy were shot as well, but they all survived.
Kennedy died the next day, less than five years after President John F. Kennedy, one of his brothers, had been assassinated.
Sirhan, who is Palestinian and was born in Jerusalem, said in a television interview from prison in 1989 that he had killed Kennedy because he felt betrayed by the senator’s proposal during the campaign to send 50 military planes to Israel.
Robert Barton, one of the parole commissioners, said laws passed since Sirhan’s last hearing in 2016 required the commission to consider new factors, including his age at the time of his crime and his current health. Barton also said that Sirhan had improved himself by going to various classes in prison.
Douglas Kennedy, one of Kennedy’s sons, attended the hearing on Friday and urged the commissioners to release Sirhan, a Jordanian citizen who would likely be deported, if they did not think he was a threat.
“I do have some love for you,” he told Sirhan at one point, who nodded and lowered his head.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department submitted a letter to the board that it said was on behalf of the Kennedy family and opposed Sirhan’s release. Barton said he had also taken into account confidential letters that opposed Sirhan’s release.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. met with Sirhan in 2017 and said in a letter to the board that the Sheriff’s Department’s letter did not speak for him and that he thought Sirhan should be released. His son Robert F. Kennedy III attended the hearing but did not address the board.
In a telephone interview, Douglas Kennedy, who is a correspondent for Fox News, said his family was split over Sirhan’s release. Emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, he said he believed that Newsom should follow the recommendation of the parole board and release Sirhan.
He also said that seeing Sirhan at the hearing had made him feel more compassion for him.
“I spent my life sort of avoiding words like ‘killed,’ ‘assassin,’ ‘assassination,’ and Sirhan’s name in general,” said Kennedy, who was 1 at the time of his father’s assassination. “So I’m grateful for today’s hearing just to demystify some of that.”
Many of the questions at the hearing focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Sirhan at one point began crying when he spoke about refugees suffering in the Middle East.
“Whatever I would want to do in the future, it would be towards resolving that peacefully,” he said, but he also added that he wanted to “disengage” from the conflict because he was too old.
An odd coalition has urged prison officials to release Sirhan over the years, including those who say he has served his time and others who believe that he is not the real assassin.
Though several investigations have determined that Sirhan was the lone gunman, and Sirhan has said the same, some have pursued a conspiracy theory that claims there was a different killer, citing what many say was a sloppy police investigation and varying theories about how many shots were fired and what the ballistic evidence shows.
Two of Robert F. Kennedy’s children have said they support another investigation, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has become a prominent promoter of misleading information about vaccines. He has said he thinks Sirhan is innocent.
Paul Schrade, a labor organizer who worked on Kennedy’s campaign in 1968 and was one of the several bystanders shot during the assassination, recorded a video that was played for the parole commissioners on Friday, urging Sirhan’s release based on the theory that he is innocent. Others argue that there is no need to keep an aging Sirhan in prison. In 2019, Sirhan was stabbed by another prisoner, an incident he described on Friday for the first time, saying that the prisoner had crept up on him and cut him in the neck.
Still, many people have opposed his release, saying the crime was heinous and came amid a painful series of assassinations in the 1960s — including the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. two months earlier.
“There are definitely members of my family who are understandably not compassionate toward him,” Douglas Kennedy said. “And I think their views should be respected. This issue was the seminal moment for everybody who I’m related to.”
In 2016, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County said prosecutors and the Los Angeles Police Department were unified in believing that “the seriousness and the gravamen of the crimes committed by this prisoner are too abhorrent to justify his release.”
Sirhan, who is being held at a prison near San Diego, was convicted of murder and initially sentenced to death. But Sirhan’s punishment became a life sentence when California’s top court temporarily struck down the state’s death penalty in 1972.
In 1975, prison officials said Sirhan would be freed on parole in 1986, but that date was later rescinded — after an outcry — by a panel that said the officials had erred.
On Friday, Teresa Meighan, the other parole commissioner who reviewed the case, asked Sirhan if he would be angry if the board recommended parole but it was reversed.
“I would lose a little bit of faith because of the repetition of it, because America’s word is big, and it should hold,” Sirhan said, adding that when he was first given a parole date in 1975, “to me that was a promise.”
Sirhan also said he was grateful to have been spared from execution and promised that he would live a peaceful life.
“Over half a century has passed and that young impulsive kid that I was does not exist anymore,” he said.
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