By Ray Sanchez and Cheri Mossburg, CNN
Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of assassinating Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, was recommended for parole on Friday. After 53 years in prison, the 77-year-old inmate’s fate is now in the hands of California’s governor.
Two of Kennedy’s surviving sons, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Douglas Kennedy, supported the release during Sirhan’s 16th appearance before the parole board, yet several of Kennedy’s other children have strongly opposed the move.
Sirhan arrived at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in May 1969 after being convicted of first-degree murder and assault with intent to murder.
“I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr. Sirhan face to face,” Douglas Kennedy, who was a toddler when his father was gunned down in 1968, said during the virtual 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, wearing a blue uniform with a paper towel folded like a handkerchief into his pocket, smiled.
“I do have some love for you,” Douglas Kennedy told the inmate, who nodded and lowered his head.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has favored Sirhan’s release in the past, wrote in support of parole. He said he was moved when he first met Sirhan — “who wept, clinching my hands and asked for forgiveness” — and offered to be “a guiding friend for him.”
The two-person panel recommended parole, but said the decision is not yet final. Despite the recommendation for release, the board’s decision could be reversed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will determine if the grant is consistent with public safety, a process that could take a few months.
Newsom is in the midst of a campaign battle, facing a recall election on September 14.
Sirhan has ‘no intention whatsoever’ of being a repeat offender
Though it was Sirhan’s 16th parole hearing, it was the first time state prosecutors did not oppose his release.
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón did not make his prosecutors available to speak during Sirhan’s parole hearing, affirming his stance that the role of a prosecutor ends at sentencing.
Los Angeles law enforcement submitted a letter in opposition to Sirhan’s release, according to Parole Board Commissioner Robert Barton, who said there were also letters from the public and members of the Kennedy family.
Barton said the panel considers all submissions but also attempts to determine whether Sirhan poses a danger to society.
“I have no such intention whatsoever,” Sirhan said at one point about being a repeat offender.
Barton said Sirhan qualified as a youth offender and was youth parole-eligible, and the board is required to give that “great weight” under law. He also qualified for elderly parole at age 77 after serving more than 20 years.
Gascón adviser Alex Bastian, in a statement this week, noted that the parole board has all the pertinent facts and evaluations, along with behavior during incarceration.
“If someone is the same person that committed an atrocious crime, that person will correctly not be found suitable for release. However, if someone is no longer a threat to public safety after having served more than 50 years in prison, then the parole board may recommend release based on an objective determination,” Bastian said.
“Our office policies take these principles into account and as such, our prosecutors stay out of the parole board hearing process,” Bastian added.
Gascón’s office said the previous practice, typical of many district attorneys across the country, involved almost always objecting to inmate releases, based solely on the circumstances of the crime and not on the actions of the inmate in the years following. The new directive aims to leave the decision up to the parole board.
Barton said the DA’s absence made no difference in the decision because prosecutors had opposed parole in the past.
Gascón was elected DA late last year on a promise of sweeping criminal justice reforms, including ending cash bail for certain minor offenses, the death penalty and the practice of charging juveniles as adults.
In response to Sirhan’s parole recommendation, six of Kennedy’s children issued a statement excoriating the decision.
“As children of Robert F. Kennedy, we are devastated that the man who murdered our father has been recommended for parole. 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,” said the statement from Kennedy’s children Joseph P., Courtney, Kerry, Christopher, Maxwell and Rory.
“Given today’s unexpected recommendation by the California parole board after 15 previous decisions to deny release, we feel compelled to make our position clear. We adamantly oppose the parole and release of Sirhan Sirhan and are shocked by a ruling that we believe ignores the standards for parole of a confessed, first-degree murderer in the state of California,” the statement said.
“We are in disbelief that this man would be recommended for release. We urge the Parole Board staff, the full Board, and ultimately, Governor Newsom, to reverse this initial recommendation. 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.”
Sirhan shot Kennedy in kitchen of Los Angeles hotel
Sirhan shot Kennedy to death in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles following a campaign event in which Kennedy celebrated primary victories in his run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1968.
Initially sentenced to death for the murder, Sirhan’s punishment was commuted to life in prison in 1972 after the California State Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional.
Angela Berry, Sirhan’s attorney, provided sentencing memorandums focusing on her client’s youth at the time of the murder — he was 24 — and his childhood. Describing Sirhan as a Palestinian who became a refugee at age four, he “witnessed atrocities most of us only see in movies or in our worst nightmares” before emigrating to the US as a teenager.
Berry praised the panel for “keeping the politics out and following the law.” She said she and Sirhan congratulated one another and that she was concerned about other inmates trying to “jeopardize” his eventual release date.
Barton asked Sirhan what his life intention was at 24.
The inmate said he wanted a career, to marry and settle down as a “good solid member of the community” and that’s what he hoped to do now if released.
Barton asked Sirhan if he follows the Middle East conflict and his feelings about it.
Sirhan said he did not follow the situation but thinks about refugees and their suffering. He broke down.
“Take a few deep breaths,” Barton said.
Barton reminded him the conflict has not gone away.
Sirhan said he felt “the misery that those people are experiencing. It’s painful.” He called them “kindred,” and said he wouldn’t be human if their plight didn’t move him.
“Although whatever I would want to do in the future, it would be towards resolving that peacefully,” Sirhan added.
“I think peaceful means are the best way to resolve that conflict in the Middle East.”
Barton said the panel had no control over whether Sirhan is deported to Jordan.
“To me, the concern would be that you would become some type of, you know, symbol or lightning rod to foment more violence,” Barton said.
If released on parole, Sirhan plans to live with his only surviving brother in Los Angeles, according to the filing.
Barton said, if released, Sirhan would likely be placed in a transitional home at first and transferred to his brother’s home six months later.
“I want to be there for him,” Sirhan said of his brother during the hearing.
Sirhan said he was not a heavy drinker and that he had hard liquor the night of the shooting. He vowed to remain “alcohol-free” and said he was learning to manage his anger. “It’s a process,” Sirhan said.
He said he is Christian and meditates regularly. Sirhan said he took responsibility for taking the gun into the hotel and firing the shots.
Barton pressed Sirhan about the Middle East conflict, and his bouts of impulsivity and poor judgment clouded by alcohol at the time.
“I’ve been trying to establish by asking you questions if you’re still that person,” Barton said.
“No I’m not.” Sirhan said.
An attorney for the Kennedy family did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment.
Sirhan was convicted of killing Kennedy and wounding five other people during the June 5, 1968, shooting inside the kitchen service pantry of the former Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Three bullets struck Kennedy’s body while a fourth bullet passed harmlessly through the shoulder of his suit coat. Kennedy, the most seriously wounded of the six victims, died the next day. The other five people survived their wounds.
In 1968, the 42-year-old Kennedy, younger brother of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, was a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination against Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
On the night of his assassination, Kennedy had just appeared on live television in an Ambassador Hotel ballroom, where he had claimed victory over McCarthy in the California primary election. Moments later, he was fatally wounded in the hotel service pantry while on his way to a news conference set for a small banquet room just beyond the pantry. The shooting in the pantry was not captured by any cameras.
At Friday’s hearing, Sirhan was asked what he would say about people who believe he’s angry after decades behind bars.
“I disagree with them outright,” he said. “I’m grateful for having my life spared from the gas chamber. I value my life so much … I would never put myself in jeopardy again.”
He added, “You have my pledge. I will always look to safety and peace and nonviolence.”
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CNN’s Jack Hannah and Natasha Chen contributed.