Story by Shawn Hubler — March 2, 2023
SACRAMENTO — A California panel on Wednesday denied parole for Sirhan B. Sirhan, the man convicted in the 1968 assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in its first review of the case since Gov. Gavin Newsom decided last year that Mr. Sirhan, 78, should not be released.
The parole board’s latest decision, which followed a hearing via videoconference from the state prison in San Diego, where Mr. Sirhan has been held, was the second time in three years that Mr. Sirhan’s release had been considered. He has spent more than a half-century behind bars for shooting Mr. Kennedy, then a candidate for president, inside the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles at the end of a campaign appearance in 1968. At the time, Mr. Sirhan was 24.
His lawyers have argued that he is not a danger to the public and should be released. In 2021, a panel of the parole board agreed. But after an extraordinary chain of events, the governor overruled the panel last year, charging that Mr. Sirhan had not yet been rehabilitated.
On Wednesday, after Mr. Sirhan’s 17th parole hearing, the new recommendation was made by a commissioner and a deputy commissioner who were not part of the review panel in 2021. Governor Newsom had no comment.
The assassination of Mr. Kennedy stunned the nation, occurring as Americans were grappling with deep generational and cultural divisions, the Vietnam War and the movement for civil rights. Mr. Kennedy — the brother of a beloved president who, only a few years before, had also been assassinated — had just won the Democratic presidential primary election in California.
Mr. Sirhan, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian who had emigrated to the United States from Jordan, shot Mr. Kennedy as he walked through the hotel’s pantry. He confessed almost immediately. Initially, he was convicted of first-degree murder and assault with intent to murder and was sentenced to death, but that sentence was later commuted to life with the possibility of parole.
In a television interview from prison in 1989, Mr. Sirhan said that he had killed Mr. Kennedy because he felt betrayed by the senator’s proposal during the campaign to send military planes to support Israel. Later, however, he said he did not remember the shooting.
By 2021, California law required the parole board, when making a determination on releasing an inmate, to consider the inmate’s advanced age and his relative youth at the time a crime was committed. After 15 prior denials, a panel of commissioners granted him parole that year.
They noted then that Mr. Sirhan had improved himself by taking classes in prison. Two of Mr. Kennedy’s sons had also urged leniency.
But most of the family was adamant that Mr. Sirhan remain behind bars and pleaded with Mr. Newsom to exercise his power under California law to reject the panel’s recommendation. In January 2022, after more than four months of review, the Democratic governor — who has long spoken of Mr. Kennedy as a role model — granted that plea.
“After decades in prison, he has failed to address the deficiencies that led him to assassinate Senator Kennedy,” the governor wrote last year. “Mr. Sirhan lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the same types of dangerous decisions he made in the past.”
Mr. Sirhan’s lawyer, Angela Berry, has since asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to reverse Mr. Newsom’s 2022 parole denial. With that petition pending, she said on Wednesday that she believed the panel’s latest decision had been influenced by the governor’s rejection last year.
“I don’t know how you come to an opposite conclusion,” Ms. Berry said, noting that since 2021, Mr. Sirhan had undergone even more counseling and had added to his long record of good behavior.
“He’ll be 79 this month,” she said. “He’s trying to do the right thing. He wants to help his younger brother, who is almost blind. They want to live together for their remaining years.”
But she said that the Kennedy family and its lawyers had argued strenuously at Wednesday’s hearing that Mr. Sirhan still posed a risk to society and that the panel had “a different dynamic.”
“With the governor’s power to reverse the board,” she said, “I think it makes it difficult for any politically sensitive person to be released.”