SAN DIEGO — U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin was granted parole Friday after two of RFK’s sons spoke in favor of Sirhan Sirhan’s release and prosecutors declined to argue he should be kept behind bars.
The decision was a major victory for the 77-year-old prisoner, though it does not assure his release.
The ruling by the two-person panel at Sirhan’s 16th parole hearing will be reviewed over the next 90 days by the California Parole Board’s staff. Then it will be sent to the governor, who will have 30 days to decide whether to grant it, reverse it or modify it.
Douglas Kennedy, who was a toddler when his father was gunned down in 1968, said he was moved to tears by Sirhan’s remorse and he should be released if he’s not a threat to others.
“I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr. Sirhan face to face,” he said. “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.”
The New York senator and brother of President John F. Kennedy was a Democratic presidential candidate when he was gunned down June 6, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after delivering a victory speech in the pivotal California primary.
Sirhan, who was convicted of first-degree murder, has said he doesn’t remember the killing. His lawyer, Angela Berry, argued that the board should base its decision on who Sirhan is today.
Prosecutors declined to participate or oppose his release under a policy by Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón.
Gascón, who said he idolized the Kennedys and mourned RFK’s assassination, believes the prosecutors’ role ends at sentencing and they should not influence decisions to release prisoners.
Sirhan, who was in a blue prison uniform with a paper towel folded like a handkerchief and tucked into his pocket, smiled on Friday as Douglas Kennedy spoke at the Friday parole hearing.
Sirhan, 77, told members of the California Parole Board that he had learned to control his anger and was committed to living peacefully.
“I would never put myself in jeopardy again,” he said. “You have my pledge. I will always look to safety and peace and non-violence.”
Some Kennedy family members, Los Angeles law enforcement officers and the public submitted letters opposing Sirhan’s release, Parole Board Commissioner Robert Barton said at the start of the proceeding where Sirhan appeared from San Diego County prison.
Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian from Jordan, has acknowledged he was angry at Kennedy for his support of Israel. He has served 53 years for murdering Kennedy.
When asked about how he feels about the Middle East conflict today, Sirhan broke down crying and temporarily couldn’t speak.
“Take a few deep breaths,” said Barton, who noted the conflict had not gone away and still touched a nerve.
Sirhan said he doesn’t follow what’s going on in the region but thinks about the suffering of refugees.
“The misery that those people are experiencing. It’s painful,” Sirhan said.
If released, Sirhan could be deported to Jordan, and Barton said he was concerned he might become a “symbol or lightning rod to foment more violence.”
Sirhan said he was too old to be involved in the Middle East conflict and would detach himself from it.
Paul Schrade, who was wounded in the shooting, also spoke in favor of his release.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has spoken in favor of Sirhan’s release in the past, wrote in favor of paroling Sirhan.
Sirhan was sentenced to death after his conviction, but that sentence was commuted to life when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972. At his last parole hearing in 2016, commissioners concluded after more than three hours of intense testimony that Sirhan did not show adequate remorse or understand the enormity of his crime.
Sirhan has in the past stuck to his account that he doesn’t remember the killing. However, he has recalled events before the crime in detail — going to a shooting range that day, visiting the hotel in search of a party and returning after realizing he was too drunk to drive after downing Tom Collins cocktails.
Just before the assassination, he drank coffee in a hotel pantry with a woman to whom he was attracted. The next thing he has said he remembered was being choked and unable to breathe as he was taken into custody. At his 2016 hearing, he said he felt remorse for any crime victim but couldn’t take responsibility for the shooting.