Sirhan Sirhan Recommended for Parole

The 16th time may be the charm for Robert Kennedy's killer.

WaPo (“California parole panel votes in favor of release from prison for Sirhan Sirhan“):

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.”

The recommendation still has to be signed off on by the full board and the governor, so it’s not a done deal. Still, to the extent we should ever parole a murderer, a 77-year-old more than half a century removed from the crime would seem an ideal candidate.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Kennedy family is not united in sharing this belief.

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.”

It seems to me that either first-degree murderers should be eligible for parole or not. But, since they are indeed eligible under California law, it’s not obvious why a remorseful 77-year-old shouldn’t be granted it just because the man he killed was famous.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. wr says:

    I’m all for paroling him for RFK’s murder — but only if he is instantly put on trial for the deaths of all the American troops and Vietnamese, Cambodian and Loatian people who were killed after January of 1969.*

    Sirhan didn’t just commit a murder. He decided that he and only he had the right to decide America’s future and so killed a candidate he didn’t like. He’s not like John Hinckley or Squeaky Fromme, who were clearly nuts. This was a political calculation, and we have all been suffering from his choice ever since.

    Keep him behind bars forever. My only regret is that at 77, he probably doesn’t have that much longer to live. I would happily see him imprisoned for another century.

    *Yes, it’s true we can’t know that RFK would have beaten Nixon, and we can’t know that he would have ended the war in 1969. But since Sirhan Sirhan made sure that we would never be able to find out, he can’t claim the benefit of the doubt.

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  2. Mikey says:

    I was surprised to learn RFK Jr. does not believe Sirhan actually killed RFK. Obviously this opinion is not shared by his siblings.

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  3. CSK says:

    I’ve seen nothing reported about Ethel Kennedy’s reaction. Has she been told?

    @Mikey:
    This will probably cause a deep schism between the siblings.

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  4. grumpy realist says:

    @Mikey: Isn’t he the anti-vaxxer as well?

    I think we have adequate proof of his inability to understand reality.

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  5. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:
    RFK Jr. is indeed one of the most prominent anti-vaxxers.

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  6. Andy says:

    I don’t have an opinion on this either way. He’s been incarcerated for almost as long as I’ve been alive- RFK was killed a couple months before I was born.

    I suppose one way to look at it is to ask: what purpose is served by continued incarceration? Beyond justice for the family, I see none.

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  7. mattbernius says:

    James you are spot on with this:

    It seems to me that either first-degree murderers should be eligible for parole or not. But, since they are indeed eligible under California law, it’s not obvious why a remorseful 77-year-old shouldn’t be granted it just because the man he killed was famous.

    The expressed point of incarceration is to balance public safety, punishment, and rehabilitation. It’s highly unlikely that a 77 year old poses a public threat and he appears to have been rehabilitated. So after that it’s the question of punishment. And 50 years seems more than adequate for that.

    Which gets to:

    I suppose one way to look at it is to ask: what purpose is served by continued incarceration? Beyond justice for the family, I see none.

    The issue with this is that while justice for the family is a consideration in sentencing, sentencing theory is that you are punished on behalf of the community. Otherwise, the aggrieved party could determine the punishment. This is especially noteworthy in death penalty cases where the victim’s family *doesn’t* want the death penalty and it is still applied.

    If his victim was anyone else, all other facts being the same, chances are he would have been paroled years ago.

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  8. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @CSK:

    I haven’t seen any indication that she has. She never remarried and she raised 11 children on her own, so I can’t imagine that she’d be pleased.

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  9. Kathy says:

    I wonder how he feels about trump.

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  10. Mimai says:

    It’s interesting to me what types of people we (I) consider worthy of mercy, redemption, parole, etc. Remorse and atonement are central to most of these judgments.

    But we also have opinions (often internally inconsistent) about who is capable of expressing remorse and atoning….who we consider to be redeemable vs. lost causes.

    Viewing all people as capable of remorse and atonement (and treating them accordingly) keeps the door open for such things to materialize.

    Viewing and treating some people as incapable shuts that door (though it may not permanently lock it) and is self-fulfilling. Perhaps, deep down, that’s the point.

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  11. CSK says:

    @HarvardLaw92:
    Ethel Kennedy turned 93 this past April, and lives in Hyannis, Mass. full-time, as far as I know. I have no idea what her mental state is. Her caretakers may be protecting her from the news.

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  12. Arnold Stang says:

    Didn’t he get the death penalty, but it was commuted to life in prison in the early seventies when California abolished it.

    Should that be a factor in his parole hearing?
    I.E. Charlie Manson

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  13. Mister Bluster says:

    Below is a post I made on OTB June 5th of this year.
    I would not have been able to vote for Kennedy if he were the Democratic candidate in November 1968 as I was 20 at the time and legal voting age was then 21.
    I have been opposed to the death penalty for many years. I have always thought that life in prison without the possibility of parole is a good alternative for murder.
    Since I am not a California resident at this time I guess I don’t have much to say about this.

    Lest we forget. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down 53 years ago today. Link He died the next morning on June 6, 1968. I watched him on TV speaking to the press just after his victory in the California Democratic Primary. He walked off screen and moments later the report that he had been shot came over the air.
    Sometime before midnight two friends and I boarded the Illinois Central passenger train in Homewood to ride to Carbondale, Illinois for the first time to enroll in college at Southern Illinois University. The conductor on the train was listening to his transistor radio. A few miles down the rails he told us that he had heard the report that Kennedy had died.

    November 11, 1963 President John F. Kennedy RIP

    February 21, 1965 Malcolm X RIP

    March 4, 1968 Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. RIP

    June 5, 1968 Robert F. Kennedy. RIP

    It seemed to me at the time that assassination was becoming a part of the political process in The United States.
    May we never return to those dark days.

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  14. CSK says:

    @Arnold Stang:
    He did receive the death penalty in 1969; it was commuted in 1972 to life with the possibility of parole.

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  15. mattbernius says:

    @Arnold Stang:
    Since the decision was made retroactive, it was essentially as if the sentence was always life in prison with the possibility of parole.

    Should that be a factor in his parole hearing?
    I.E. Charlie Manson

    I don’t believe the prior death sentence was ever an issue in the Charlie Manson parole hearings. Manson never expressed remorse or showed any form of rehabilitation. In fact, he often didn’t even bother to show up for the hearings or work with his appointed representative.

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  16. mattbernius says:

    @Pophat nails my position on this one:

    Nostalgia is not a justice system.— OneHitPopehat (@Popehat) August 28, 2021

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  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    I don’t want to sound corny but I’m never going to support a system that eliminates the possibility of redemption. We are defined as a country by how we treat the people at the bottom. Mercy is not weakness. In any case, after 50 plus years in stir he will never really be free.

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  18. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey: Robert Kennedy Jr. is a nut.

    @wr: We don’t even know that RFK would have beaten Hubert Humphrey for the nomination.

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  19. Mister Bluster says:

    NOTE TO SELF:
    Proofread! Proofread!! PROOFREAD!!! PROOFREAD!!! Then do it again! PROOFREAD!!!!
    President John F. Kennedy was killed on November 22 1963. Not November 11 as stated in the post above that was copy and pasted from June of this year. That means I did not catch the error in June when I made the original and reviewed it countless times and did not catch it today when I reviewed it at least 3 0r 4 times again.
    PROOFREAD! PROOFREAD! PROFFREAD! and PAY ATTENTION while you are doing it!

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  20. Modulo Myself says:

    @Mikey:

    They believe that Sirhan Sirhan was not the only shooter. There’s a whole degree of controversy about how many bullets were fired. Sirhan’s firearm had only 8 shots. There are apparently bullet holes in the wall which would make the number of shots fired 13. I’ve read that the police work was shoddy, so they mistook nicks in the wall from serving trays as bullet holes. Which makes sense.

    Anyway (puts on tinfoil hat) the larger conspiracy is that somebody used a mentally-ill person as a decoy/patsy to make an assassination seem like a random, crazy act and not at all an attempt by a state to eliminate a threat. This somebody being of course the US Government, who was conducting experiments (through the CIA and MKUltra) on how to brainwash people and make them assassins.

    I’m guessing this is what RFK Jr actually believes. Sirhan Sirhan was a dupe created by the government and there was another shooter. I don’t believe it. But if the evidence came out that the factions of US government were behind the assassinations of Kennedy and, obviously, Martin Luther King in 1968, how surprising would it be? LBJ caught Nixon interfering with the Paris peace talks and nobody did anything. They were afraid of losing control and the CIA and FBI did what they felt like at that time.

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  21. Gustopher says:

    What are Sirhan Sirhan’s politics like these days? He claims to have given up assassinating presidential candidates, but looking ahead to the likely 2024 field, does he have any thoughts?

    Half a century in jail is enough.

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  22. wr says:

    @James Joyner: “We don’t even know that RFK would have beaten Hubert Humphrey for the nomination.”

    As I said, SS does not get the benefit of the doubt, because he took the doubt away from all of us. Let him rot.

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  23. Richard Gardner says:

    I wonder if he’ll be deported to Jordan (or West Bank) as he isn’t a US citizen. His parole filings say he intends on living with his brother in LA. This could get complicated.

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  24. Mister Bluster says:

    @Richard Gardner:..”His parole filings say he intends on living with his brother in LA.”

    Even though my ex-wife was a parole officer before I met her I still have not learned all the legalities of being in the system. Isn’t a parolee still in the custody of the State no matter where they live?

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  25. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mister Bluster:..PROFFREAD!

    AARGH!!!!! I GIVE UP!!!

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  26. Matt Bernius says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Isn’t a parolee still in the custody of the State no matter where they live?

    Yup. And they typically need to get permission from the state to do anything.

    So since his sentence is not completed, I don’t think a deportation is in his future.

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  27. Richard Gardner says:

    Beyond any doubt he has been convicted of a serious felony, one that makes him deportable. ICE can file an Immigration Detainer (Immigration Hold) and get the prisoner handed over to them for deportation hearings. This one is going to be a political decision (would he be seen as a hero in the West Bank, would Israel or Jordan allow him to arrive?). California lawmakers are trying to pass a bill titled VISION (Voiding Inequality and Seeking Inclusion for Our Immigrant Neighbors) Act that would prohibit cooperation between law enforcement (including prisons) and ICE. Discussion here.

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  28. Pete S says:

    @Mister Bluster: I saw that one, I thought you did it on purpose. It would have been pretty funny

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  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster: @Pete S: Most of my students preferred to have their essays profread before turning them in. I’ve also done profreading for quite a few students who didn’t take classes from me over the years. I guess I’m good at it.

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  30. The Q says:

    So parole Oswald had he been tried and convicted. Parole Booth? Ray?

    Amazing reactions here. Those bullits in the pantry were fired square into the heart, soul and gut of this country, not just one man.

    Go kill a President, express remorse and the idiots in California will release you when you’re an old man.

    Many may be tempted to take that deal.

    Oh, Ray would never be paroled. BLM would burn down Memphis.

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  31. James Joyner says:

    @The Q:

    Go kill a President, express remorse and the idiots in California will release you when you’re an old man.

    John Hinckley served less time for attempting to kill Ronald Reagan (granted, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and hospitalized rather than imprisoned).

    Sirhan was originally sentenced to death but the sentence was changed to life because of a short-lived Supreme Court ruling that capital punishment was unconstitutional. In California and many other states, “life” comes with an opportunity for parole at some point. Sirhan has been eligible for a very long time.

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  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    @The Q:

    Go kill a President, express remorse and the idiots in California will release you when you’re an old man.
    Many may be tempted to take that deal.

    A person willing to give up 50 years is not going to be deterred by the thought that at age 77 he may lose the sick and feeble part of his life. That’s absurd.

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