Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy's killer, is recommended for parole

Sirhan Sirhan at a parole hearing in 2016 at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
Sirhan Sirhan appears at a parole hearing in 2016 at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)
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More than 50 years after he carried out one of the most infamous political assassinations in American history, the man who gunned down Robert F. Kennedy was recommended for parole in California.

Sirhan Sirhan — who was 24 when he shot and killed the senator at a Los Angeles hotel in 1968 — was deemed suitable for release by a two-person parole panel Friday afternoon, the first step toward making him a free man. The panel reached its decision, in part, after two of Kennedy's children expressed support for Sirhan's release.

Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant who had written a manifesto calling for Kennedy's death, had said he was drunk and doesn't remember opening fire at the since-demolished Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.

Kennedy was considered a leading candidate for president and had just won primaries in South Dakota and California at the time of his death. He was murdered nearly five years after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was shot and killed in Dallas.

Sirhan, now 77, admitted to the killing in 1969 and has been in prison for 53 years. He originally faced the death penalty but his sentence was commuted to life after the state briefly outlawed capital punishment in the 1970s.

The two-person panel Sirhan appeared before Friday granted parole, but the decision is not final. Parole staff still have 90 days to review the matter. After that, Gov. Gavin Newsom — or whoever might replace him following next month's recall election — could still decide to block Sirhan's release.

Sirhan expressed deep remorse for the slaying Friday, and said he had given up alcohol and recommitted his life to peace during the decades he has spent housed in a San Diego prison.

“Sen. 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, if I did in fact do that," he said. “I’m still responsible for being there and probably causing this whole incident, through my own gun or other guns.”

Two of Kennedy's children submitted letters on Sirhan's behalf. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — who has previously expressed doubt about Sirhan's guilt and echoed others' claims that a second gunman actually killed the senator — said he believed his father might extend mercy to Sirhan.

“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," Kennedy Jr. wrote in a letter submitted in advance of Friday's hearing.

In an interview with The Times late Friday, Kennedy Jr. said he was "very happy" Sirhan had been recommended for release and reiterated concerns that the wrong man was convicted.

Kennedy, who was a teen at the time of the murder, pointed to an autopsy report indicating the senator had been shot from behind when Sirhan had been standing in front of Kennedy. Some have argued that this would have made it impossible for Kennedy to have been shot in the back by Sirhan, while others have said that Kennedy turned after the first shot.

“I’m happy that the justice system showed some humanity,” said Kennedy Jr., who has sometimes garnered criticism for indulging in conspiracy theories surrounding both his father's killing and the use of vaccines. “I think that my father, who was the top administrator of justice in this country as attorney general and he fought to assure the justice system was humane. … He would be very happy with this result.”

Paul Schrade, a former Kennedy aide who was one of several bystanders wounded in the shooting, also said Friday that he believed Sirhan was innocent.

“I sympathize very clearly about the way that Sirhan’s been treated,” said Schrade, 96, from his home in Los Angeles. “This was his 16th parole board hearing, when the guy is not guilty.”

Schrade said that he hopes the granting of parole will push police to reopen their investigation of Kennedy's death.

Douglas Kennedy also said that while he'd lived in fear of Sirhan for years, he saw him now as "worthy of compassion and love."

“I really do believe any prisoner who is found to be not a threat to themselves or the world should be released," Douglas Kennedy wrote. "I believe that applies to everyone, every human being, including Mr. Sirhan."

Other family members, however, were not in support of the parole recommendation.

In a joint statement late Friday, six of Kennedy's surviving children — Joseph P. Kennedy II, Courtney Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Christopher G. Kennedy, Maxwell T. Kennedy and Rory Kennedy — said they were devastated that the man who murdered their father received the recommendation.

"Our father's death is a very difficult matter for us to discuss publicly and for the past many decades we have declined to engage directly in the parole process," according to the statement.

The six Kennedy siblings said they adamantly opposed Sirhan's parole and release, and were "shocked by a ruling" they believe ignores standards for paroling "a confessed, first-degree murderer in the state of California," according to the statement.

The siblings said that the parole board's decision "has inflicted enormous additional pain," and that they were in disbelief that Sirhan would be recommended for release.

"We urge the Parole Board staff, the full board and ultimately ... Newsom, to reverse this initial recommendation," according to the statement. "It is a recommendation we intend to challenge every step of the way, and we hope that those who also hold the memory of our father in their hearts will stand with us."

Angela Berry, Sirhan's attorney, said the 77-year-old has not been accused of a serious violation of prison rules since 1972 and that prison officials have deemed him a low risk for violence. Sirhan first became eligible for parole in 1972. Between 1983 and 2006, he appeared before the parole board every one to two years, but was always denied. Beginning in 2006, those hearings were held just twice a decade. He was last denied release in 2016.

The Los Angeles Police Department, other relatives and several members of the public submitted letters opposing Sirhan's release, according to Parole Board Commissioner Robert Barton.

Sirhan's fate could now lie with Newsom, who has long idolized Kennedy and has a fondness for quoting the slain senator. Months after taking office, Newsom lined the hallways of the governor’s office with more than 50 photographs of mourners who lined the railways to see Kennedy's funeral train as it carried his body from New York to Washington, D.C. more than a half century ago.

Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for Newsom, said the governor will review Sirhan's case if it is presented to him.

Newsom has not hesitated to reject the recommendations of parole boards in the past. In November, Newsom blocked the release of Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten. He did the same just last month for Royce Casey, one of three men who brutally murdered a 15-year-old boy in Nipomo more than two decades ago.

Still, earlier this month Newsom faced harsh criticism for not blocking the release of David Weidert, who served four decades in prison for killing a developmentally disabled Clovis man whom he buried alive.

While Sirhan's case would not reach the governor's desk until after the Sept. 14 recall election, the decision could still impact Newsom politically if he remains in power beyond next month. Rising crime has become a central issue of the effort to oust him from office and would likely remain so if Newsom seeks a second term in 2022.

The recommendation for Sirhan's release also came without opposition from L.A. County prosecutors, who are barred from fighting release at parole hearings under a policy enacted by reform-minded Dist. Atty. George Gascón.

While Gascón's policy had been in effect for nearly nine months, it attracted new scrutiny this week because of Sirhan's case. Gascón has said it should be up to the parole board to determine an inmate's suitability for release, rather than prosecutors who are simply relitigating the facts of old cases, sometimes decades later.

"The role of a prosecutor and their access to information ends at sentencing. The parole board, however, has all the pertinent facts and evaluations at their disposal, including how someone has conducted themselves over the last few decades in prison," Alex Bastian, a special adviser to Gascón, said in a statement.

Critics of Gascón have said the parole policy is indicative of a broader abandonment of victims under his administration and some victims have complained that they felt helpless without an advocate present when they went to oppose the release of a loved one's killer earlier this year.

As news of the parole board's decision broke late Friday, some rushed to attack Gascón. The California District Attorneys Assn. released a statement bashing Gascón's policy as "disgraceful."

"Letting a victim or a victim's family member be at a parole hearing by themselves is just plain cruel. Gascón is completely abandoning his job," added L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami, a leading figure in the effort to recall Gascón. "We all know the parole board doesn't always get it right — it's not even close."

But during the hearing, Barton said the presence of a prosecutor would have had no impact on the board's decision.

“Obviously they opposed in the past and even if they had opposed it today our decision would be the same," the commissioner said.

While critics of Gascón have claimed the parole policy will end with a flood of violent criminals returning to the streets, statistics suggest otherwise. Records show the state parole board granted release in only about 19% of all cases it heard from 2018 to 2020, and that does not factor in cases where Newsom later blocked an inmate's release.

Times staff writers Anita Chabria and Gregory Yee contributed to this report, as did the Associated Press.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.