RFK Assassin Sirhan Sirhan May Get Released Released From Prison
On June 5, 1968, the day after Robert F. Kennedy won the California Democratic Primary, he was assassinated by a 24-year-old Arab-Christian Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan, over what he would later tell David Frost was Kennedy's "support of Israel and his deliberate attempt to send those 50 bombers to Israel to obviously do harm to the Palestinians." He was arrested at the scene after being subdued by author George Plimpton, football player Rosey Grier (cousin to Pamela), and Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson, among others.
On Friday, Sirhan Sirhan, now 77, will go before a parole board for the 16th time, but unlike all of the previous 15 times he has done this, prosecutors will not be challenging his release. This is part of newly elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón's default policy of either not attending parole hearings or, in the case of those who had served their mandatory minimums, sending letters recommending release. Gascón's office won't be sending such a letter in Sirhan's case, but they will be remaining neutral.
Via Washington Post:
"The role of a prosecutor and their access to information ends at sentencing," said Alex Bastian, special adviser to Gascón. "The parole board's sole purpose is to objectively determine whether someone is suitable for release. If someone is the same person that committed an atrocious crime, that person will correctly not be found suitable for release. However, if someone is no longer a threat to public safety after having served more than 50 years in prison, then the parole board may recommend release based on an objective determination."
I don't want to get ahead of myself here, since George Gascón is a prosecutor and a former literal cop, but that actually seems to be ... good, maybe? He's also "creating a sentencing review unit to revisit the cases of about 20,000 prisoners for possible resentencing, analyzing both the fairness of long sentences and the cost savings for releasing low-risk or older inmates," which is very nice.
During Sirhan's last parole hearing in 2016, Paul Schrade, who was also shot that day, testified before the parole board that while he believed Sirhan shot him, that a second shooter killed Kennedy and that Sirhan was just a patsy. Schrade, a friend of the Kennedys, gave a statement ahead of the hearing.
Via Washington Post:
"The LAPD and LA DA knew two hours after the fatal shooting of Robert Kennedy that he was shot by a second gunman and they had conclusive evidence that Sirhan Bishara Sirhan could not and did not do it," the statement said. "The official record shows that [the prosecution at Sirhan's trial] never had one witness – and had no physical nor ballistic evidence – to prove Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy.
"Evidence locked up for 20 years shows that the LAPD destroyed physical evidence and hid ballistic evidence exonerating Sirhan, and covered up conclusive evidence that a second gunman fatally wounded Robert Kennedy."
While Sirhan has said that, due to the combination of rage and alcohol, he doesn't remember any of the details from that day, he has not officially denied having killed Kennedy. RFK Jr. also does not believe Sirhan killed his father and supports the second shooter theory, but RFK Jr. also believes that vaccines are evil, so take that one with a grain of salt.
But even if there was no second shooter, it's been 50 years and if he is not a threat, there is little reason to continue imprisoning him. His new parole lawyer is arguing that Sirhan should be released based on his good behavior and the fact that had he actually been sentenced to life with parole in 1968 (he was originally sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted when California abandoned the death penalty), he would have been eligible for parole back in 1975.
Via Washington Post:
Sirhan has a new parole lawyer for this hearing, who does not raise any claims about Sirhan's involvement in the shooting, in which five other people standing behind Kennedy in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel were wounded. Instead, lawyer Angela Berry focuses on Sirhan's age at the time — 24 — his clean record in prison, his remorse and his unlikely chance of reoffending if released. [...]
Berry argues that "current dangerousness is the relevant inquiry by the Board. Statutory and case law dictate that parole shall be granted unless the prisoner poses a current danger to public safety." Under California law in effect in 1968, a life sentence with parole would have made Sirhan eligible for release after seven years. He has had no disciplinary violations since 1972, and although he claims not to remember the act of shooting Kennedy, he has expressed remorse in parole hearings since the 1980s and said at one, "I have feelings of shame and inward guilt ... I honestly feel the pain that [the Kennedys] may have gone through."
It is understandable that a lot of people are going to feel some kind of way about this. I totally understand it, at least, because despite my tendency towards prison abolition, I really do understand how personal and devastating the loss of Bobby Kennedy was to a lot of people, especially those who believe he would have become president, ended the Vietnam War, and prevented Nixon from happening and a whole lot of people from dying. I grew up in New England, most of my family is Catholic, and so I know how much so many people, like my very own Dad, really loved him and thought he was the greatest.
That being said, Gascón's office is doing the right thing here. If he's no longer any kind of a threat, letting him out of prison after 50 years sets a good precedent. We have got to get out of the habit of sending people to prison for the rest of their natural lives, if they do not pose a threat. We have got to get out of the habit of the excessively long sentences we have become inured to. And one of the only ways to do that, I think, is by starting with more famous and notorious criminals, because people will actually pay attention to those kinds of releases.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse