SAN DIEGO — Sirhan B. Sirhan, who was convicted of assassinating Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was found suitable for parole Friday by a two-person panel, but the decision must still be approved by the governor.
It was Sirhan's 16th attempt at parole after he shot the presidential hopeful on June 5, 1968, in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
The California Parole Board's staff has 120 days to review the decision, and the governor has another 30 days to approve, deny or modify it. If parole is ultimately denied, he can try again in three years. If the decision is approved, it would lead to his release.
The hearing in front of a commissioner and deputy commissioner was conducted by video because of Covid-19 protocols.
Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón's office stood by its policy to decline to participate in any post-sentencing decisions regarding parole or release. Sirhan was successfully prosecuted by the office in 1969, but his death sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1972.
"The role of a prosecutor and their access to information ends at sentencing," Alex Bastian, special advisor to Gascón, said in a statement.
"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," he said. "The parole board’s sole purpose is to objectively determine whether someone is suitable for release."
In January, NBC News was the first to detail this policy. It was invoked this year when a prosecutor was not present at a parole hearing for Charles Manson family member Bruce Davis, who was ultimately denied parole by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The lack of a district attorney's office presence at Sirhan's hearing did not sit well with some prosecutors.
"This is one of the most notorious political assassinations in U.S. history and the killer is being considered for release without benefit of a representative on behalf of the people of California," said Vern Pierson, president of the California District Attorney's Association and the D.A. of El Dorado County.
"That is disgraceful and it's an abrogation of the responsibilities of the elected District Attorney of Los Angeles," he said before Friday's decision.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, said in a statement: "My office would never abandon our legal duties to represent a victim whose voice is forever silenced by murder.
"Robert F. Kennedy served honorably as U.S. Attorney General where he fought for civil rights and dignity and fought against organized crime and corruption," she continued. "Senator Kennedy, along with any victim of crime, deserves to have the DA represent them as well as protect the safety and wellbeing of the people they are sworn to protect."
Two of Kennedy's sons, lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and writer Douglas Kennedy, expressed support for parole Friday, although the latter had concerns about what he described as Sirhan's continued empathy for Palestine, The Associated Press reported.
Sirhan, a Christian-born Palestinian from Jordan, opposed Robert F. Kennedy's support for Israel.
Another six of Robert F. Kennedy's nine surviving children said their father's assassination was "a crime against our nation" and expressed vehement opposition to parole.
"As children of Robert F. Kennedy, we are devastated that the man who murdered our father has been recommended for parole," they said in a statement. "Our father's death is a very difficult matter for us to discuss publicly and for the past mandy decades we have declined to engage directly in the parole process.
"We urge the Parole Board staff, the full Board, and ultimately, Governor Newsom, to reverse this initial recommendation."
The statement was released by Joseph P. Kennedy II, Courtney Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Christopher G. Kennedy, Maxwell T. Kennedy and Rory Kennedy.
Sirhan shot the Democratic frontrunner as Kennedy was celebrating his victory in the state's Democratic primary.
The moment after the assassination was captured by a Life photographer, who snapped a photo of busboy Juan Romero crouching over an ailing Kennedy. The 42-year-old brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy died the following day.
The Ambassador site, once owned by former President Donald Trump, is now a multi-school complex for Los Angeles Unified School District pupils, the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools.
Friday's hearing took place at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, where Sirhan has been held since Nov. 22, 2013, when he was transferred there. Coincidentally, the date marked the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination.
He has been in the state prison system since 1969.
Romero and Feather reported from San Diego and Blankstein from Los Angeles.