From City News Services
LOS ANGELES — Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, has been recommended for parole on his 16th attempt, during a hearing that lacked a representative 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 120-day review period, after which it will be forwarded to the governor, who will have 30 days to decide whether to uphold the decision, reject it or modify it.
During the Aug. 27 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 issued a statement after the decision explaining they were “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 many past decades we have declined to engage in the parole process,” the statement from former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, D-Massachusetts, Courtney Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Christopher G. Kennedy, Maxwell P. Kennedy and Rory Kennedy said.
“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.”
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 after winning the California presidential primary that night, moving him closer to the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. Five others were shot during the attack but survived.
The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, a Los Angeles Unified School District campus, now sits where the Ambassador Hotel used to be.
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,” Stephan added. “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.”
The California District Attorneys Association, which provides training and advocacy for elected district attorneys, city attorneys with criminal divisions, and more than 3,500 prosecutors statewide also denounced Gascon’s decision to not send a representative to the parole hearing.
“This is one of the most notorious political assassinations in American history and the killer was considered for release without benefit of a representative on behalf of the people of California. That is disgraceful,” said association president Vern Pierson, who is the El Dorado County District Attorney.
“It’s a deviation from historical precedent. Over the last 50 years in every county in California, including Los Angeles, D.A.s routinely appear in these hearings to provide information to the parole board. Even in San Francisco, where the D.A. is considered by most to be the most progressive, prosecutors regularly appear at lifer hearings. There’s a saying that 90% of life is showing up. Robert F. Kennedy was a visionary attorney general and historical giant, yet Gascon cannot even bother to show up?”
Alex Bastian, a spokesman for Gascon, defended the office’s decision.
“The role of a prosecutor and their access to information ends at sentencing,” Bastian said. “The parole board, however, has all the pertinent facts and evaluations at their disposal, including how someone has conducted themselves over the last few decades in prison.”
But the association disagreed with this interpretation of a district attorney’s duties.
“This statement from his office is further proof that Mr. Gascon has neither the competence nor the integrity to run the nation’s largest district attorney’s office,” Greg Totten, the association’s chief executive officer.
“The D.A.’s role is to provide information and advice to the parole board and to support any potential victim of crime,” Pierson added. “There is no other person who has access to the information of the committing crime. Without the D.A. present, the hearing is one-sided.”