California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / via AP
SACRAMENTO, California – The California governor on Thursday refused to release Robert F. Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan from prison more than half a century after the 1968 assassination left a deep wound during one of America’s darkest times.
Governor Gavin Newsom, who has cited RFK as his “political hero” and embraced the historical significance of his decision, rejected a recommendation from a two-person panel of probation commissioners. Newsom said Sirhan, now 77, posed an unreasonable threat to public safety.
“Mr. Sirhan’s assassination of Senator Kennedy is among the most notorious crimes in American history,” Newsom wrote in his resolution. “After decades in prison, he has failed to address the shortcomings that led him to assassinate Senator Kennedy. Mr. Sirhan lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the same types of dangerous decisions he made in the past. “
He said the factors in his decision include Sirhan’s refusal to take responsibility for his crime, his lack of insight and the responsibility required to support his secure release, his failure to abdicate violence committed in his name, and his failure to mitigate its risk factors.
Sirhan will be scheduled for a new parole by February 2023.
Kennedy, the US senator from New York, was shot moments after he claimed victory in California’s central Democratic presidential election. Five others were injured in the attack on the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
His brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated in 1963.
The parole panel’s recommendation in August to release Sirhan split the iconic Kennedy family, with two of RFK’s sons – Douglas Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – supported his release. But six of Kennedy’s nine surviving children and Ethel Kennedy, RFK’s wife, urged Newsom to block his parole.
The panel’s decision was based in part on several new California laws since he was denied parole in 2016 – the 15th time he lost his bid for release.
Commissioners were to consider that Sirhan committed his crime at a young age when he was 24; that he is now older; and that the Christian Palestinians who immigrated from Jordan had suffered childhood traumas from the conflict in the Middle East.
In addition, Los Angeles County prosecutors did not object to his parole, following District Attorney George Gascón’s policy that prosecutors should not be involved in deciding whether prisoners are ready for release.
The decision had a personal element for Newsom, a Democrat colleague who displays RFK photos at his official office and home office. One of them is Kennedy with Newsom’s late father.
Newsom has previously reflected on the seriousness of having Sirhan’s fate in his hands, saying it was an emotional issue that resonated back to the turbulent 60s and reopened memories many would like to forget.
Sirhan was originally sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when the California Supreme Court briefly banned the death penalty in 1972.
He now has a heart condition and has survived prostate cancer, Valley fever and had his throat cut by another prisoner in 2019, his lawyer, Angela Berry, said.
Munir Sirhan has said that his older brother can stay with him if he is released and not deported to Jordan. Sirhan Sirhan relinquished his right to fight deportation.
During his probation, the white-haired Sirhan called Kennedy “the hope of the world.” But he stopped taking full responsibility for a shooting that he said he could not remember because he was drunk.
“It hurts me … knowledge of such a horrible deed, if I actually did,” Sirhan said.