The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

California parole panel votes in favor of release from prison for Sirhan Sirhan

Parole for 77-year-old convicted of assassinating Robert F. Kennedy still must be approved by full board, governor

Sirhan Sirhan arrives for his parole hearing on Aug. 27 at a prison in San Diego. ( /AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

A California parole board panel voted Friday in favor of Sirhan B. Sirhan’s request for release from prison on parole, more than 50 years after he was arrested and convicted of the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, finding that he was no longer a threat to society, according to the state corrections department.

The slaying of Kennedy (D-N.Y.), then a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, probably changed the course of American history. But Sirhan’s lawyer argued that was an irrelevant consideration for parole — that the criteria of rehabilitation, remorse and future dangerousness that are applied to all prisoners should also be applied to Sirhan, now 77.

“Over half a century has passed,” Sirhan told the two parole commissioners, “and that young, impulsive kid I was does not exist anymore. … Senator Kennedy was the hope of the world and I injured, and I harmed all of them, and it pains me to experience that, the knowledge for such a horrible deed.”

It was Sirhan’s 16th parole hearing. Since California abolished capital punishment in 1972, and Sirhan’s sentence was changed to life, he has been eligible for release since 1975. The decision by the two-person panel will be reviewed by the full parole board for 120 days before it is final. Then the California governor — currently Gavin Newsom (D), who is facing a recall election that ends Sept. 14 — will have 30 days to uphold the decision, reverse it or send it back to the board.

One of Kennedy’s sons, Douglas H. Kennedy, spoke in favor of Sirhan’s parole. “I really do believe any prisoner who is found to be not a threat to themselves or the world should be released,” Kennedy said, according to the Associated Press. “I believe that applies to everyone, every human being, including Mr. Sirhan. … I was very deeply moved by Mr. Sirhan’s expression of remorse and at times it brought tears to my eyes and affected me very deeply.”

Another son, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., sent a letter to the parole board Friday in support of Sirhan after learning that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had sent a letter opposing parole “on behalf of the Kennedy family.”

“Please know that that letter was not at the direction of the ‘family,’ and certainly not me,” Robert Kennedy Jr. wrote. “As you may know, I have been a strong advocate for the release of Mr. Sirhan B. Sirhan since I learned of evidence that was not presented to the court during his trial.”

After the ruling, Robert Kennedy Jr. said: “My father, I think, would be really happy today. My father believed in compassion. The ideals of our justice system are the possibility of redemption and the importance of forgiveness. He didn’t believe the justice system was just about revenge.”

On Friday night, six of the nine surviving Kennedy children issued a statement strongly condemning the decision, and promising to challenge it “every step of the way.” The signers were former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.), as well as Courtney, Kerry, Chris, Maxwell and Rory Kennedy.

“We are devastated that the man who murdered our father has been recommended for parole,” the six siblings wrote. “We adamantly oppose the parole and release of Sirhan Sirhan and are shocked by a ruling that we believe ignores the standards of parole of a confessed, first-degree murderer in the state of California.”

The Kennedys urged the Parole Board or Newsom to reverse the panel’s recommendation, saying, “We are in disbelief that this man would be recommended for release.”

Paul Schrade was one of five people who were wounded in the shooting as they walked behind Kennedy, and Schrade has long believed that Sirhan shot him but did not shoot Kennedy. After the ruling, Schrade said, “I’m pleased that we’ve done this for Sirhan because he didn’t deserve all of the very bad behavior from the prison system,” meaning repeated parole denials, “and prosecutors and police. He was innocent and didn’t deserve this for 53 years.”

For the first time, the Los Angeles County district attorney did not appear at one of Sirhan’s parole hearings to argue in opposition. Newly elected prosecutor George Gascón issued a policy that his office would no longer participate in parole hearings.

“The role of a prosecutor and their access to information ends at sentencing,” Gascon adviser Alex Bastian said, noting that parole boards are better suited to judge a prisoner’s time behind bars and likelihood of reoffending. “If someone is no longer a threat to public safety after having served more than 50 years in prison, then the parole board may recommend release based on an objective determination. Our office policies take these principles into account and as such, our prosecutors stay out of the parole board hearing process.”

Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of Robert F. Kennedy assassination, seeks parole with no opposition from prosecutors

Only one journalist, Julie Watson of the Associated Press, was permitted to observe the hearing and distributed an account of what happened. She reported that Commissioner Robert Barton pointed out that Sirhan qualified as a youthful offender for purposes of parole consideration — he was 24 in 1968 — and the board is required to give that “great weight” under the law. Sirhan also qualified for “elderly parole” for being 77 and having served more than 20 years.

Barton, joined by Deputy Commissioner Teresa Meighan, said the lack of testimony by prosecutors didn’t matter. “Obviously they opposed in the past, and even if they had opposed it today our decision would be the same,” Barton said.

Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Kennedy gave a speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California Democratic presidential primary. As he walked through a hotel pantry after the speech, Sirhan ran toward him from the front and fired a .22-caliber pistol, witnesses said. Sirhan was immediately wrestled onto a table and the gun seized, but Kennedy was mortally wounded. He died the next day.

Sirhan’s defense team claimed that he was mentally ill at the time of the shooting. Psychiatric experts on both sides of the case agreed, and Los Angeles County prosecutors reached a deal with the defense to allow Sirhan to plead guilty to first-degree murder and accept a life sentence, rather than face a capital murder charge and a possible death sentence. But a Los Angeles judge rejected the deal and demanded a trial.

At the trial, prosecutors said Sirhan had developed hatred for Kennedy because of the senator’s support of American military aid to Israel. Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian, experienced the Israeli takeover and emigrated with his family to the United States. In his bedroom, police found a notebook in which Sirhan had repeatedly scribbled, “RFK Must Die.”

At Friday’s parole hearing, Barton asked Sirhan if he still followed the conflicts in the Middle East, and about his feelings today. Sirhan said he does not follow them but thinks about the refugees and the suffering, and he broke down crying, the AP reported.

Barton said the conflict has not gone away, and he noted that it “obviously is still able to touch a nerve.”

At his trial, Sirhan’s lawyers, one of whom was under indictment by the same prosecutors he was facing, continued to make a case that Sirhan was mentally ill and did not challenge the physical evidence in the case.

Famed coroner Thomas Noguchi found that Kennedy had been shot three times at point-blank range from the back, with a fourth shot passing through his jacket without striking him, though witnesses said Sirhan was in front of Kennedy. Noguchi determined that the shots were fired from a distance of three inches.

Sirhan’s lawyers moved Noguchi off the stand quickly without raising the issue of the gunshots. The defense also did not raise the issue of apparent multiple bullet holes found in the ceiling and door frames of the pantry, in addition to those that struck Kennedy and five other victims, possibly indicating that more than the eight bullets that Sirhan’s gun held were fired.

A jury convicted Sirhan in April 1969 and sentenced him to death. When California eliminated the death penalty, Sirhan was resentenced to life. California has since reinstated the death penalty, but has a labyrinthine appeals process and rarely executes anyone.

The conviction was a source of controversy in Los Angeles almost immediately after it was handed down, after a weekly newspaper pointed out the bullet holes indicating more than eight shots were fired. The Los Angeles police then destroyed the ceiling tiles and door frames where the holes had been seen, though the case was still on appeal.

Beginning in the 1970s, surviving victim Schrade became involved in pushing for further investigation, citing ballistics tests on Sirhan’s gun showing that bullets test-fired from the weapon did not match the bullets pulled from Kennedy and two other victims. He also cited a recording made from the hotel ballroom where Kennedy had just spoken, on which some analysts say 13 shots can be heard, though others say only eight shots were recorded.

Who killed Bobby Kennedy? His son RFK Jr. doesn't think it was Sirhan Sirhan

Schrade appeared at Sirhan’s previous parole hearing in 2016, informing the board that he was a friend of Kennedy’s and had worked on campaigns with him since 1960. He apologized to Sirhan for not speaking at earlier hearings on his behalf.

“I know that he didn’t kill Robert Kennedy,” Schrade said in 2016. “And I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t sure of that. Because I loved Robert Kennedy, and I would not defend somebody who killed him. Kennedy was a man of justice. So far, justice has not been served in this case. … There is clear evidence of a second gunman in that kitchen pantry who shot Robert Kennedy.”

Schrade helped convince Robert Kennedy Jr. of that view, and in December 2017, Kennedy Jr. visited Sirhan in prison and told him he believed he was innocent of the assassination, according to an interview with The Washington Post in 2018. Kennedy Jr. said this week that he still holds that view.

At Friday’s hearing, parole commissioner Barton said that mental health experts had all concluded that Sirhan was a low risk for violence. He noted that three prison guards had written letters of support for Sirhan, though they had no incentive to do so.

“We saw the improvement that you’ve made,” Barton said, “and all of the other mitigating factors, and we did not find that your lack of taking complete responsibility” for the shootings indicated that Sirhan was “currently dangerous. Based on these findings, we conclude that you do not pose an unreasonable risk of danger or threat to public safety and are finding you suitable for release.”

Munir Sirhan, Sirhan’s younger brother, said after the ruling, “I prayed and I prayed and I prayed.” Munir Sirhan’s neighbors in Pasadena supported Sirhan Sirhan’s return to his family home, though Barton noted that Sirhan, who never obtained U.S. citizenship, could still be deported to Jordan, where he is a citizen. Munir Sirhan said that would also be fine.

Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for Newsom, said that the governor will review the case if he receives it from the full parole board and that “in all cases, the governor carefully reviews parole cases to determine whether a parole grant is consistent with public safety.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the California parole board has 90 days to review the panel’s decision. It has 120 days. A state corrections spokesman initially provided incorrect information. This article has been corrected.