California panel rejects parole again for Robert Kennedy assassin

Lawyer for Sirhan Sirhan has accused the panel of bending to the will of California’s governor, who opposes his parole.

A man, seen from behind, holds up a paper as Sirhan Sirhan sits behind a wooden desk in a parole hearing
Sirhan Sirhan's parole hearing in 1997. He has has attended 16 parole hearings in total [Reuters]

A panel in the United States has denied parole for Robert Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, saying the 78-year-old prisoner still lacks insight into what caused him to shoot the senator and presidential candidate in 1968.

Sirhan’s lawyer Angela Berry disputed that assertion, saying Sirhan has shown that awareness and that his psychiatrists have said for decades that he is unlikely to re-offend or be a danger to society.

Two years ago, a different California parole board had agreed with Berry, voting to release Sirhan, but Governor Gavin Newson rejected the decision in 2022.

Berry said she believes the new board members on Wednesday were influenced by the California governor as well as by the lawyers representing Kennedy’s widow and some of his children. Several relatives of the slain politician, though not all, are opposed to Sirhan’s release

In rejecting Sirhan’s freedom last year, Newsom said the prisoner remains a threat to the public and has not taken responsibility for a crime that changed US history.

“I do feel the board bent to the political whim of the governor,” Berry said after the hearing at a federal prison in San Diego County, California.

Berry said the ageing prisoner also “wasn’t as articulate” when he spoke to the board this time. The board recommended Sirhan do more work to better understand what makes a person a political assassin, she said.

The parole board hearing comes nearly six months after Berry asked a Los Angeles County judge to reverse Newsom’s denial. The case is ongoing, and Berry said it was unclear how Wednesday’s denial by the board will affect it.

“They found him suitable for release last time and nothing has changed,” Berry said. “He’s continued to show great behaviour.”

In a three-and-a-half-minute message played during a news conference held by Berry in September, Sirhan said he felt remorse every day for his actions. It was the first time Sirhan’s voice had been heard publicly since a televised parole hearing in 2011 before California barred audio or visual recordings of such proceedings.

“To transform this weight into something positive, I have dedicated my life to self-improvement; the mentoring of others in prison on how to live a peaceful life that revolves around nonviolence,” he said. “By doing this, I ensure that no other person is victimised by my actions again and hopefully make an impact on others to follow.”

Sirhan shot Kennedy moments after the US senator from New York claimed victory in California’s pivotal Democratic presidential primary in 1968. He wounded five others during the shooting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

A Christian Palestinian from Jordan, who suffered childhood trauma from the bombings in the Middle East, Sirhan has acknowledged he was angry at Kennedy for his support of Israel but has insisted he does not remember the shooting and had been drinking alcohol beforehand.

He was convicted of first-degree murder and originally sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972.

Sirhan was denied parole 15 times until 2021, when the board recommended his release.

Sirhan’s younger brother, Munir Sirhan, has said his brother can live with him in Pasadena, California, if he is paroled.

Sirhan Sirhan has waived his right to fight deportation to his native Jordan.

Berry filed a 53-page writ of habeas corpus asking the judge to rule that Newsom violated state law, which holds that inmates should be paroled unless they pose a current unreasonable public safety risk. Recent California laws also required the parole panel to consider that Sirhan committed the offence at a young age, 24, and that he is now an older prisoner.

She is challenging the governor’s reversal as an “abuse of discretion”, a denial of Sirhan’s constitutional right to due process and a violation of California law. She also alleges that Newsom misstated the facts in his decision.

Newsom’s office declined to comment.

Newsom overruled two parole commissioners who had found that Sirhan no longer was a risk. Among other factors, Newsom said Sirhan has failed to disclaim violence committed in his name, adding to the risk he could incite political unrest.

The ruling has split the Kennedy family, with the senator’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, and several of his nine surviving children opposing his parole.

Wednesday’s board denied Sirhan parole for three years but he can file a petition to request that his 17th parole hearing be held before then.

Source: The Associated Press