Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy's Assassin, Was Recommended for Parole

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Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is campaigning to win a recall election in California, can choose to uphold or reject the recommendation, which would free Mr. Sirhan after more than five decades.

Sirhan Sirhan at a parole hearing in San Diego on Friday, in a photo from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Aug. 27, 2021Updated 5:48 p.m. ET

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 Mr. Sirhan, 77, will walk free, but will likely put his fate in the hands of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is in the final stretch of campaigning before a recall election that will determine his political future. A spokeswoman for Mr. Newsom declined to say whether he would approve the recommendation, only that he would review it.

The parole hearing was the 16th time Mr. 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, Mr. Sirhan said he had little memory of the assassination itself, but he said he “must have” brought the gun into the hotel.

“I take responsibility for taking it in and I take responsibility for firing the shots,” he said. Mr. Sirhan, much of his short hair turned white, was seated in front of a computer and wearing a blue uniform with a paper towel in his front chest pocket.

Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Mr. Kennedy gave a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles following his victory in the Democratic primary in California. As Mr. Kennedy, a senator from New York, walked through the hotel’s pantry, Mr. Sirhan shot him with a revolver.

Mr. Kennedy died the next day, less than five years after President John F. Kennedy, one of his brothers, had been assassinated.

Mr. Sirhan, who is Palestinian and was born in Jerusalem, said in a television interview from prison in 1989 that he had killed Mr. Kennedy because he felt betrayed by the senator’s proposal during the campaign to send 50 military planes to Israel.

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Credit...Dick Strobel/Associated Press

Douglas Kennedy, one of Mr. Kennedy’s sons, attended the hearing on Friday and urged the commissioners to release Mr. Sirhan if they did not think he was a threat.

“I do have some love for you,” he told Mr. 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 Mr. Sirhan’s release. One of the commissioners, Robert Barton, said he had also taken into account confidential letters that opposed Mr. Sirhan’s release.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. met with Mr. 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 Mr. 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 that his family was split over Mr. Sirhan’s release and that he respected the varying views. Emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, he said he believed that Mr. Newsom should follow the recommendation of the parole board and approve Mr. Sirhan’s release. He also said the hearing itself had been a powerful experience for him.

“It was over video conference, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to see him and him see me, kind of face to face,” said Douglas Kennedy, who was 1 at the time of his father’s assassination. He said that seeing Mr. 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,” he added. “So I’m grateful for today’s hearing just to demystify some of that.”

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Credit...Associated Press

Many of the questions at the hearing on Friday focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Mr. 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.

Mr. Barton, one of the commissioners, said he feared that Mr. Sirhan would become a “symbol or lightning rod to foment more violence.”

Mr. Sirhan is a Jordanian citizen and would likely be deported if he were released. In 2016, when he was last denied parole, he told the parole commissioners that he would live with his brother in Pasadena, Calif., if he was not deported, but that he also has family in Jordan.

An odd coalition has urged prison officials to release Mr. Sirhan over the years, comprising those who say Mr. Sirhan has served his time and others who believe that he is not the real assassin.

Though several investigations have determined that Mr. Sirhan was the lone gunman, and Mr. 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 Mr. Sirhan is innocent.

Paul Schrade, a labor organizer who worked on Mr. Kennedy’s campaign in 1968 and was one of several bystanders who was also shot during the assassination, recorded a video that was played for the parole commissioners on Friday, urging Mr. Sirhan’s release based on the theory that he is innocent. Others argue that there is no need to keep an aging Mr. Sirhan in prison. In 2019, Mr. 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. Dr. 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.”

Mr. Sirhan, who is being held at a prison near San Diego, was convicted of murder and initially sentenced to death over the objection of Mr. Kennedy’s brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who wrote that “My brother would not have wanted his death to be cause for the taking of another life.” But Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Sirhan said. “When I was given parole date in 1975, to me that was a promise.”

Mr. 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.

The decision to grant parole will first be reviewed by the legal division of the Board of Parole Hearings, a process that can take up to about four months. If the lawyers find an error, they can send the case to the full slate of commissioners to review.

If not, then the case is sent to the governor, who has 30 days to review it. The governor can either approve the recommendation, send it back to the parole board, reverse the recommendation or take no action and let it go into effect.

Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for Mr. Newsom, said the governor “carefully reviews parole cases” and noted that the entire process could take up to 150 days — which means he could wait to make a decision until after the recall election on Sept. 14.

In several instances, Mr. Newsom has denied parole to people whom the parole board has urged him to release, including a former gang member who had been convicted of killing two people and a man who had been bludgeoning a friend to death when they were both 16. He has also overruled the parole board to deny parole to two followers of the notorious cult leader Charles Manson, most recently in June.

Tim Arango contributed reporting.

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