US Senator Robert F Kennedy’s assassin has been recommended for parole after two of Kennedy’s sons spoke in favour of Sirhan Sirhan’s release and prosecutors declined to argue he should be kept behind bars.
The decision was a major victory for the 77-year-old Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian from Jordan, though it does not assure his release.
The ruling by the two-person panel on Friday at Sirhan’s 16th parole hearing will be reviewed during the next 90 days by the California Parole Board’s staff. Then, it will be sent to the governor, who will have 30 days to decide whether to grant it, reverse it or modify it.
Douglas Kennedy, who was a toddler when his father was gunned down in 1968, said he was moved to tears by Sirhan’s remorse and he should be released if he is not a threat to others.
“I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr Sirhan face to face,” he said at Sirhan’s parole hearing. “I think I’ve lived my life both in fear of him and his name in one way or another. And I am grateful today to see him as a human being worthy of compassion and love.”
Sirhan, who was in a blue prison uniform with a paper towel folded like a handkerchief and tucked into his pocket, smiled as Kennedy spoke.
Six of Kennedy’s nine surviving children said they were shocked by the vote and urged Governor Gavin Newsom to reverse the parole board’s decision and keep Sirhan behind bars.
“He took our father from our family and he took him from America,” the six siblings wrote in a statement late Friday. “We are in disbelief that this man would be recommended for release.”
Some of Kennedy’s children and others have called for a reinvestigation of the killing, believing there was a second shooter who got away.
Robert F Kennedy Jr, who has spoken in favour of Sirhan’s release in the past, wrote in favour of paroling Sirhan.
He said in a letter submitted to the board that he met Sirhan in prison and was moved after he “wept clinching my hands and asked for forgiveness”.
“I went there because I was curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence… I was disturbed that the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father,” said Kennedy.
“While nobody can speak definitively on behalf of my father, I firmly believe that based on his own consuming commitment to fairness and justice, that he would strongly encourage this board to release Mr Sirhan because of Sirhan’s impressive record of rehabilitation.”
‘Hope of the world’
While on Friday Sirhan again said he did not recall the killing, he made multiple attempts to show nonetheless he takes responsibility for the harm he caused.
“Senator Kennedy was the hope of the world … and I harmed all of them and it pains me to experience that, the knowledge for such a horrible deed, if I did in fact do that,” said Sirhan.
He told the board he had learned to control his anger and was committed to living peacefully.
“I would never put myself in jeopardy again,” he said. “You have my pledge. I will always look to safety and peace and non-violence.”
Kennedy, the New York senator and brother of slain President John F Kennedy, was a Democratic presidential candidate when he was shot dead June 6, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after delivering a victory speech in the pivotal California primary.
Sirhan, who was convicted of first-degree murder, has said he does not remember the killing.
His lawyer, Angela Berry, argued that the board should base its decision on who Sirhan is today.
Prosecutors declined to participate or oppose his release under a policy by Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, a former police officer who took office last year after running on a reform platform.
Gascon, who said he idolised the Kennedys and mourned Robert Kennedy’s assassination, believes the prosecutors’ role ends at sentencing and they should not influence decisions to release prisoners.
Some Kennedy family members, Los Angeles law enforcement officers and the public submitted letters opposing Sirhan’s release, Parole Board Commissioner Robert Barton said at the start of the proceeding held virtually Friday, where Sirhan appeared from San Diego County prison.
“We don’t have a DA here, but I have to consider all sides,” Barton said, noting it would consider arguments made in the past by prosecutors opposing his release, depending on their relevance.
Sirhan, has served 53 years for the murder and has acknowledged he was angry at Kennedy for his support of Israel.
When asked about how he feels about the Middle East conflict today, Sirhan broke down crying and temporarily could not speak.
“Take a few deep breaths,” said Barton, who noted the conflict had not gone away and still touched a nerve.
Sirhan said he does not follow what is going on in the region but thinks about the suffering of refugees.
“The misery that those people are experiencing. It’s painful,” Sirhan said.
If released, Sirhan could be deported to Jordan, and Barton said he was concerned he might become a “symbol or lightning rod to foment more violence”.
Sirhan said he was too old to be involved in the Middle East conflict and would detach himself from it.
“The same argument can be said or made that I can be a peacemaker, and a contributor to a friendly nonviolent way of resolving the issue,” Sirhan said.
Sirhan, who was 24 at the time of the assassination, was sentenced to death after his conviction, but that sentence was commuted to life when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972.
Sirhan has in the past stuck to his account that he does not remember the killing. However, he has recalled events before the crime in detail — going to a shooting range that day, visiting the hotel in search of a party and returning after realising he was too drunk to drive after downing Tom Collins cocktails.
Just before the assassination, he drank coffee in a hotel pantry with a woman to whom he was attracted. The next thing he has said he remembered was being choked and unable to breathe as he was taken into custody. At his 2016 hearing, he said he felt remorse for any crime victim but could not take responsibility for the shooting.
Sirhan told the panel then that if released, he hoped he would be deported to Jordan or live with his brother in Pasadena, California.