The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Calif. Gov. Newsom denies parole for Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of Robert F. Kennedy assassination

The state parole board had granted parole for Sirhan after 53 years, but the governor must review releases of convicted murderers

Sirhan Sirhan arrives for a parole hearing on Aug. 27 in San Diego. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Thursday rejected parole for Sirhan Sirhan, the 77-year-old Palestinian immigrant who was convicted of the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in Los Angeles.

A two-member panel of the California parole board in August approved release for Sirhan after serving 53 years behind bars, and that ruling was then approved by the parole board’s legal staff.

But California voters amended their state constitution in 1988 to allow the governor to reverse decisions by the state Board of Parole Hearings for convicted murderers. Newsom elected to do so, saying in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times that Sirhan, after decades in prison, “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.”

Kennedy’s wife, Ethel Kennedy, publicly declared her opposition to parole in September, and she was joined by six of her nine surviving children. They issued a statement Thursday evening welcoming Newsom’s decision. “We are greatly appreciative of the Governor’s consideration of the facts and his faithful application of the law,” the statement said. “His decision represents the vindication of the rule of law over all who would betray it with hatred and violence. … The Governor protects Californians and people around the world — and that is in the tradition, and faithful to the legacy, of Robert Kennedy. We are deeply grateful for this decision.”

The reversal returns Sirhan’s case to the parole board, which must hold another parole hearing within 18 months, according to California law. Newsom has reversed 161 paroles for murderers in his three years as governor, state records show. Very few states allow governors to overrule parole boards.

Sirhan’s attorney, Angela Berry, released a statement that said the parole process had become politicized, and that she would challenge Newsom’s decision in the courts. “We fully expect that judicial review of the governor’s decision will show that the governor got it wrong,” Berry said. “The California Supreme Court has declared that life prisoners have a due process right to meaningful consideration for parole. Parole is presumed and it will only be denied under the law if the prisoner poses a current unreasonable risk to the public if released. Not an iota of evidence exists to suggest Mr. Sirhan is still a danger to society.”

Two of Robert Kennedy’s children, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Douglas Kennedy, supported Sirhan’s release during his most recent parole hearing in August, and one daughter, former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has not spoken recently about the case.

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

Kennedy was 42 years old and had just won the California Democratic presidential primary when he was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head, as he moved through the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968. Two other close-range shots slightly wounded the senator, and a fourth passed through his coat without hitting him, all from behind.

Kennedy died a day later, on June 6, 1968, further convulsing a country already reeling from the assassination two months earlier of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Some believed Kennedy had a chance to capture the Democratic nomination for president, and follow his older brother John F. Kennedy into the White House.

Sirhan, then 24, was seen moving quickly toward Kennedy in the pantry, yelling and firing a .22-caliber pistol. He was wrestled onto a table by hotel staff, author George Plimpton and athletes Rafer Johnson and Rosey Grier, among others.

Sirhan was taken to a Los Angeles police station, where he chatted calmly with officers and prosecutors for hours without ever discussing the shooting or revealing his name. Police had no idea who he was until his brothers saw his picture in the newspaper the next day and notified the authorities.

Sirhan was quickly indicted on a charge of murder. But the lawyers on both sides, and their psychological experts, suspected something was different with Sirhan. He claimed not to remember the shooting. He was easily hypnotized. The prosecution and defense agreed to a deal to allow Sirhan to plead guilty to first-degree murder and serve a life sentence.

But Judge Herbert V. Walker rejected the deal and demanded a trial, saying the public needed a full airing of the momentous slaying. Sirhan’s defense team, led by a lawyer then under indictment himself, launched a mental incompetence defense, but the jury rejected that, convicted Sirhan in April 1969 and sentenced him to die.

In 1972, the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, and Sirhan was one of 107 condemned prisoners resentenced to life with the possibility of parole. He continued to claim that he did not remember the slaying, and his lack of full contrition followed him through 15 parole hearings in which he was rejected for release every time.

For his most recent hearing, Sirhan took a different approach. A group of high-profile inmates at the San Diego prison where Sirhan is held took up his cause, including music executive Suge Knight and Mexican Mafia gang leader Arturo Guzman, conducting mock parole hearings under the guidance of Redemption Row California. Redemption Row’s executive director, Jen Abreu, told the Intercept that the mock hearings went for hours, tossing countless possible questions at Sirhan, and seeking to reduce the anger he has sometimes flashed in prior hearings. Abreu told the “Voices: River City” podcast that Redemption Row had helped 19 of 20 “lifers” win their release. Abreu spoke at Sirhan’s parole hearing.

Abreu said that the inmates helped convince Sirhan to admit he brought a loaded gun to the Ambassador Hotel that night and that he had been drinking at the Kennedy victory party. A transcript of the parole hearing shows that Sirhan did acknowledge bringing the gun and having multiple drinks that night.

For the first time at the August hearing, no one from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office attended to oppose Sirhan’s parole. Newly elected district attorney George Gascón said it was not the prosecution’s role to become involved in post-conviction decisions.

Hearing this, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore sent a letter to the parole board saying, “This crime was a political statement, and we cannot afford to allow individuals to believe there are not severe consequence[s] associated with attacking the fabric of a democratic society.”

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

The two-member panel of the California parole board, commissioners Robert Barton and Teresa Meighan, questioned Sirhan closely about his decades in prison and also his actions on the night of the assassination, according to a transcript released in October. “I want to express my utter remorse for everything that took place that night,” Sirhan said, “whether I’m responsible for it or not,” a seeming reference to theories that he was hypnotized into firing the shots on a certain cue. Later Sirhan said, “it pains me to experience the knowledge that I’m responsible for such a horrible deed, if I did in fact do that.”

In granting Sirhan’s request for parole, Barton acknowledged that Sirhan did not accept full responsibility for the assassination. But he said California law required the board to consider that Sirhan, at 24, was a “youth offender” whose brain was not fully developed, that he had no prior record and virtually no problems in five decades in prison, and was now 77 with multiple health problems. “We find that you no longer pose an unreasonable risk to public safety,” Barton said. “We think that you have grown.”

The Kennedy family had been largely silent on Sirhan’s case over the years, even as questions were raised about whether he had fired the fatal shots, since he approached Kennedy from the front and the shots struck Kennedy in the back. Then in 2017, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. met with Paul Schrade, one of five people who were wounded in the same shooting. Schrade believes that Sirhan fired the shot which grazed him in the head, but not the shot that killed Kennedy.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. looked at Schrade’s files, including ballistics evidence indicating that the four shots into his father and the wounding of five other people, plus bullet holes in doors and the ceiling, were more bullets than Sirhan’s eight-shot pistol held. He then went to meet with Sirhan at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Center in December 2017. Kennedy told The Washington Post in 2018 that he had spent three hours with Sirhan, and told Sirhan he did not think he killed his father.

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

“I went there because I was curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence,” said Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and the third oldest of his father’s 11 children. (Two of those children are deceased.) “I was disturbed that the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father. My father was the chief law enforcement officer in this country. I think it would have disturbed him if somebody was put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.”

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend told The Post in 2018, “Bobby makes a compelling case. I think [the investigation] should be reopened.” Douglas Kennedy, a Fox News correspondent, joined his brother in supporting Sirhan’s parole. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has become a controversial figure for his opposition to coronavirus vaccines and his endorsement of related conspiracy theories.

But the six other Kennedy children issued a statement soon after the parole decision, denouncing it. “As children of Robert F. Kennedy, we are devastated that the man who murdered our father has been recommended for parole,” wrote former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Courtney Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Christopher G. Kennedy, Maxwell T. Kennedy and Rory Kennedy. Ethel Kennedy issued her statement soon after. More recently, Joseph and Kerry Kennedy have voiced their opposition in television interviews, and both Rory Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have published opinion pieces voicing their views on Sirhan.

“His suitability for release has not changed,” Rory Kennedy wrote, noting that Sirhan told the two-member parole panel that he was pained by his involvement in the case, “if I did in fact do that.”

Robert Kennedy Jr. wrote, “The pain that we all continue to feel from my father’s death should not prevent us from pursuit of the truth … the real killer has evaded justice.” He named an armed security guard who stood behind his father as the true assassin. That man was reported to have died in 2019 and denied firing his gun.

The parole board legal staff had until late December to review the ruling, and did not take any action to reconsider the ruling, according to Berry, Sirhan’s lawyer. The case then moved to Newsom, who had 30 days to approve parole, reverse it or return it to the parole board. In 2019, his first year as governor, Newsom reversed 95 grants of parole and returned one to the parole board, according to annual reports his office has filed. In each of the last two years, he has reversed 33 paroles for murderers, including 17 before his recall election in September, which he won. There were no statistics available on how many murder paroles he approved.

Newsom’s statement in the Los Angeles Times said that Sirhan “refuses to accept responsibility for the crimes,” and he dismissed any claims of Sirhan’s innocence as “investigated and disproved.” He said that Sirhan “remains a potent symbol of political violence” and that Sirhan does not understand “the complex risks of his self-created notoriety. He cannot be safely released from prison because he has not mitigated the risk of fomenting further political violence.”

Berry said, “Since the mid-1980s Mr. Sirhan has consistently been found by prison psychologists and psychiatrists to not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to the public; he has been discipline-free since 1972.” She said the parole board “acts as the final gatekeeper for society. It does not recommend release of any prisoner who poses a risk to the public.” Statistics show the board granted only 17 percent of all parole requests, for all crimes, last year.

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.