LOS ANGELES - Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of assassinating 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 in San Diego County, will be released. The decision by a two-person parole panel will enter a 90-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 the Friday 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.
The hearing was not attended by anyone from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. District Attorney George Gascón 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.
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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.
The Kennedy family issued the following statement in response to the recent developments:
"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.
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.
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.
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."
Joseph P.Kennedy II
Christopher G. Kennedy
Maxwell T. Kennedy
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.
REACTIONS TO THE PAROLE DECISION
The reactions to Sirhan's recommendation for parole are mixed, with some praising the decision and others believing it wasn't the right one.
"It's a sign of the times. We've been in a debate over the last couple years about what criminal justice should look like and what conception of justice should determine our criminal justice policy, and should it be rooted in retribution, retaliation and revenge or in redemption, restoration and rehabilitation," said Jody Armour, a Professor of Law for the University of Southern California Law School.
Armour believes the push towards prison reform in Los Angeles County will promote racial justice for marginalized groups, and that the Sirhan hearing represents a milestone.
"I think a lot of people are going to look at this case and say is this what we really mean by redemption, is this what we really mean by rehabilitation? When we extend redemption and rehabilitation even to somebody who has killed somebody we love, a beloved public figure, we have to remember Robert Kennedy was an icon and still is and for us to lose him, to be bereft of him can bring out the retributive urge in us and to hear his son [Douglas Kennedy] say don't give into that retributive urge, I think it's a powerful moment for us to critically self reflect as a nation and as Californians on what we mean by justice in 2021," said Armour.
Armour said it also establishes that there may not be a need for prosecutors at parole hearings.
"They [parole board] have a lot of paperwork and live appearances that will drive home to them the seriousness of the underlying offense and so that will be represented and the question is do you need to pile on all of that with also a prosecutor? It's not that the victim's voice will go unheard, it's that maybe you have enough when you have victim's survivors, paperwork, sometimes sheriff's statements, police statements like we had today, all of that is in the record and the parole board is supposed to try to be as dispassionate as possible, be fair as possible and not just swayed by emotion and appeals to emotion," said Armour.
However, Kathy Cady, a retired prosecutor, is opposed to the new policy that bars prosecutors from attending parole hearings in Los Angeles County.
"The inmate's attorney is there to present him or her in the best light, but there's no one there for the people to look at that and make an independent evaluation on if that person is suitable for parole and that puts the public at risk. Gascon's complete abandonment of his responsibility to be there as a representative of the people, first of all, to make sure that the inmate is in fact ready to be released back into society but also to assist the victim in asserting their rights and assist them throughout the parole hearing, it's really just reprehensible," said Cady.
Cady said the policy puts Los Angeles County at a disadvantage.
"In every other county, you have a representative of the people who's had an opportunity to go through all of the documents to learn about the crime, to speak to the victim, to look at the psychological assessments and also how the inmate has been doing while they're in custody. In all other counties in the state, you will have someone there to speak on behalf of the people and to provide their assessment as to whether or not the person can be paroled. The over ten million residents of Los Angeles county are the ones who are suffering because the people who are being considered for parole typically will be rapists or murderers so these people could go on to be fine if they're paroled but they may not," said Cady.
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."
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