Parole Board Urges Release of Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy’s Assassin
California parole commissioners recommended on Friday that Sirhan B. Sirhan should be freed on parole after spending more than 50 years in prison for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy during his campaign for president.
The recommendation from the two commissioners does not necessarily mean Mr. Sirhan, 77, will walk free, but will put his fate in the hands of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is in the final stretch of campaigning before a recall election that will determine his political future. A spokeswoman for Mr. Newsom declined to say whether he would approve the recommendation, only that he would review it.
The parole hearing was the 16th time Mr. Sirhan had faced parole board commissioners, but it was the first time no prosecutor showed up to argue for his continued imprisonment. George Gascón, the progressive and divisive Los Angeles County district attorney who was elected last year, has made it a policy for prosecutors not to attend parole hearings, saying the parole board has all the facts it needs to make an informed decision.
At the hearing, which was conducted virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Sirhan said he had little memory of the assassination itself, but he said he “must have” brought the gun into the hotel.
“I take responsibility for taking it in and I take responsibility for firing the shots,” he said. Mr. Sirhan, much of his short hair turned white, was seated in front of a computer and wearing a blue uniform with a paper towel in his front chest pocket.
Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Mr. Kennedy gave a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles following his victory in the Democratic primary in California. As Mr. Kennedy, a senator from New York, walked through the hotel’s pantry, Mr. Sirhan shot him with a revolver.
Mr. Kennedy died the next day, less than five years after President John F. Kennedy, one of his brothers, had been assassinated.
Mr. Sirhan, who is Palestinian and was born in Jerusalem, said in a television interview from prison in 1989 that he had killed Mr. Kennedy because he felt betrayed by the senator’s proposal during the campaign to send 50 military planes to Israel.
Douglas Kennedy, one of Mr. Kennedy’s sons, attended the hearing on Friday and urged the commissioners to release Mr. Sirhan if they did not think he was a threat.
“I do have some love for you,” he told Mr. Sirhan at one point, who nodded and lowered his head.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department submitted a letter to the board that it said was on behalf of the Kennedy family and opposed Mr. Sirhan’s release. One of the commissioners, Robert Barton, said he had also taken into account confidential letters that opposed Mr. Sirhan’s release.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. met with Mr. Sirhan in 2017 and said in a letter to the board that the Sheriff’s Department’s letter did not speak for him and that he thought Mr. Sirhan should be released. His son Robert F. Kennedy III attended the hearing but did not address the board.
In a telephone interview, Douglas Kennedy, who is a correspondent for Fox News, said that his family was split over Mr. Sirhan’s release and that he respected the varying views. Emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, he said he believed that Mr. Newsom should follow the recommendation of the parole board and approve Mr. Sirhan’s release. He also said the hearing itself had been a powerful experience for him.
“It was over video conference, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to see him and him see me, kind of face to face,” said Douglas Kennedy, who was 1 at the time of his father’s assassination. He said that seeing Mr. Sirhan at the hearing had made him feel more compassion for him.
“I spent my life sort of avoiding words like ‘killed,’ ‘assassin,’ ‘assassination,’ and Sirhan’s name in general,” he added. “So I’m grateful for today’s hearing just to demystify some of that.”
Tim Arango contributed reporting from Los Angeles.