Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 in Los Angeles, was granted parole Friday on his 16th attempt, in a hearing that was absent any representation from the agency that prosecuted him — the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
The decision does not automatically mean the 77-year-old Sirhan, who is imprisoned at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, will be released. The decision by a two-person parole panel will enter a 120-day review period, after which it will be forwarded to the governor, who will have 30 days to decide to uphold the decision, reject it or modify it.
During Friday’s hearing, Kennedy’s youngest son, Douglas, spoke in favor of Sirhan’s release. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. sent a letter to the board in support of parole.
Six of Kennedy’s other seven living children, though issued a statement after the hearing saying they “adamantly oppose” the decision, calling on “parole board staff, the full board and ultimately, Governor (Gavin) 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,” former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, D- Massachusetts, Courtney Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Christopher G. Kennedy, Maxwell P. Kennedy and Rory Kennedy said in the statement.
They added that their loss, though personal, also had a major impact on the country:
“Our father’s death is a very difficult matter for us to discuss publicly and for the many past decades we have declined to engage in the parole process. Given today’s unexpected recommendation by the California parole board after 15 previous decisions to deny release, we fell 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. Our father’s death impacted our family in ways that can never adequately be articulated and today’s decision by a two-member parole board has inflicted enormous additional pain. But beyond just us, six of Robert Kennedy’s nine surviving children, Sirhan Sirhan committed a crime against our nation and its people. He took our father from our family and he took him from America.”
The hearing was not attended by anyone from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. District Attorney George Gascon has set a policy against attending parole hearings for defendants who have served lengthy prison sentences beyond the required minimum term.
His office took the position that the parole board has all the information it needs to decide if an inmate is suitable for release.
Sirhan was convicted in April 1969 of first-degree murder and assault for the June 5, 1968, assassination of Democratic Sen. Robert Kennedy, 42, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy was speaking at the hotel while moving closer to the Democratic presidential nomination. Five others were shot during the attack but survived.
A Palestinian from Jordan, Sirhan was initially sentenced to death, but it was later commuted to life in prison after the state Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972. He has now served more than 50 years in prison.
Sirhan was transferred to Donovan State Prison from a Kings County penitentiary on Nov. 22, 2013 — the 50th anniversary of the murder of his victim’s older brother, President John F. Kennedy.
He previously was housed at Corcoran State Prison in Central California.
Sirhan has claimed amnesia brought on by excess consumption of alcohol and denied committing the killing, despite having admitted to the crime in open court during his trial.
He was last denied parole in 2016.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan blasted Gascon’s decision not to send a representative to the parole hearing, saying, “The community deserves better.”
“By abdicating his role and refusing prosecutor presence at parole hearings, it leaves victims to fend for themselves, leaves them unrepresented, and fails to uphold his duty, as required by law, to represent the interests of the people,” Stephan said in a statement.
“Our system of justice cannot function if the only advocate is the one for the person who committed a horrific crime. Decisions like this whittle away at victims’ rights and public safety. The district attorney plays a significant role in ensuring equal and fair justice for all and strives to uphold and promote the protection of victims’ rights, the rights of those accused of a crime and the right of the community to be safe from the harm that crime brings. Part of that role requires presence at parole hearings.”
Updated at 5:53 p.m. and 11:05 p.m. Aug. 27, 2021