On Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsom denied the parole of Sirhan Sirhan, the now 77-year-old man who has been in prison for 53 years for the 1968 murder of New York Senator Robert Kennedy, marking the 16th time that Sirhan has been denied release.
On June 5, 1968, Sirhan, then a 24-year-old Palestinian refugee, shot and killed New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles as Kennedy was being let out following his victory in the California Presidential Democratic Primary. Before being subdued, an additional 5 people were hit by gunfire but survived.
Since being incarcerated, Sirhan has gone through 16 parole board hearings in the past several decades. In recent years, support for Sirhan’s parole has grown as two of RFK’s children, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Douglas Kennedy, approve of his release, with Kennedy Jr. even recently stating that he thinks Sirhan is innocent and that a second gunman was involved.
In August 2021, Sirhan was recommended for for release by the parole board, citing the support of Kennedy’s sons, Sirhan’s advanced age, Sirhan being considered a youth offender at 24-years-old, his troubled childhood, and the panel’s belief that he would not offend again.
However, the recommendation was met with backlash from many, with detractors noting the severity of the crimes, the message of his parole would give, and for Sirhan still not taking responsibility for the crime so many years later.
“What upsets a lot of us who were working that night is that some people have bought into the conspiracy theory that Sirhan didn’t do it or didn’t act alone,” Louis Channing, a former Los Angeles police officer who began his career on the force in 1968, told the Globe on Friday. “I wasn’t there for the shooting, but I was there on other calls, including a few times in the kitchen. There was really no room for a second gunman, and guys I know involved in the case are just dumbfounded that people would ever want him out.”
Newsom denies parole
Governor Newsom sided with those against parole on Thursday, noting in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that Sirhan’s refusal to accept responsibility by spouting false claims each time up for parole and his continued threat to public safety, especially that he remains a threat to public safety due to his lack of insight and the risk of him fomenting more political violence once out.
“California’s Board of Parole Hearings recently found that Sirhan is suitable for parole. I disagree,” wrote Newsom on Thursday. “After carefully reviewing the case, including records in the California State Archives, I have determined that Sirhan has not developed the accountability and insight required to support his safe release into the community. I must reverse Sirhan’s parole grant.
“Kennedy’s assassination not only changed the course of this nation and robbed the world of a promising young leader, it also left his 11 children without a father and his wife without a husband. Kennedy’s family bears his loss every day. Millions of Americans lost a unifier in a time of national turmoil and grief, just nine weeks after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and four-and-a-half years after the murder of Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy.”
“Yet, after decades in prison, Sirhan still lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the kind of dangerous and destructive decisions he made in the past. The most glaring proof of Sirhan’s deficient insight is his shifting narrative about his assassination of Kennedy, and his current refusal to accept responsibility for it.”
“The evidence that Sirhan assassinated Kennedy is overwhelming and irrefutable.”
“Incredibly, in the 1990s, Sirhan began dodging responsibility. He claimed he could not remember the crime, then stated he was innocent. In 2016, Sirhan said he believed he did not kill Kennedy based on what he had read in his attorney’s legal briefs. As recently as last year, Sirhan portrayed himself as the victim, claiming he “was in the wrong spot at the wrong time.”
“It is abundantly clear that, because of Sirhan’s lack of insight, his release on parole would pose a threat to public safety.”
“Sirhan is now 77 years old, but he remains a potent symbol of political violence. In the past, terrorists took hostages — and ultimately killed some of them — in Sirhan’s name. Despite inciting violence in the past, recently Sirhan laughingly dismissed the current relevance of his status as an ideological lightning rod. He does not understand, let alone have the skills to manage, the complex risks of his self-created notoriety. He cannot be safely released from prison because he has not mitigated his risk of fomenting further political violence.”
“Over the years, Sirhan and his advocates have churned false claims about Kennedy’s assassination. Each claim of Sirhan’s innocence has been investigated and disproved. These falsehoods fuel Sirhan’s denial of accountability. Their repetition also perpetrates an additional and ongoing harm by keeping open and unhealed the wound that the assassination inflicted on the Kennedy family and the American public.”
“I will not flinch from this truth. The parole cases I review each week reveal the depths of human violence and its destruction. But these cases also give me hope. They show the resilience of crime victims and survivors, as well as the transformation of incarcerated people who choose to do the difficult work to make amends for the harm they caused. They model what Robert F. Kennedy encouraged all of us to undertake when he said, “Surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”
“Sirhan has much work to do. I encourage him to start by taking Kennedy’s words to heart.”
Sirhan vows to keep fighting for parole
Sirhan and his defense team disagreed with Newsom’s decision on Thursday and have vowed to bring the matter to a judge. They hope to prove that Newsom was wrong in calling Sirhan a continued threat to public safety and hope to have his decision reversed.
“We fully expect that judicial review of the governor’s decision will show that the governor got it wrong,” said Sirhan defense attorney Angela Berry on Thursday. “Not an iota of evidence exists to suggest Mr. Sirhan is still a danger to society. Newsom chose to overrule his own experts on the parole board, ignoring the law.”
Others noted that Newsom’s decision will only strengthen his support going into the 2022 Gubernatorial race.
“Paroling Sirhan would have been a huge mistake on many fronts,” explained former lobbyist Harry Schultz in a Globe interview on Friday. “For Newsom, doing that would have been a big point to use against him in the race by Republicans, freeing an assassin of one of the most notable Democrats in the latter half of the 20th century.”
“But I have to give Newsom this – he articulated and proved quite well why Sirhan needs to stay behind bars. If someone attacks him for being soft on crime, which, considering the crime waves currently going on, including in his own backyard of San Francisco, he can easily bring up this or his denials of parole for Manson family members or his other big decisions.”
“It’s also clear that Sirhan and his legal team aren’t going to stop fighting until Sirhan either dies or gets out, so Newsom may have to keep going through this for some time to come. Especially if he wins in November.”
If Newsom’s ruling is held, Sirhan will receive a new parole hearing to be held by February 2023.
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