In August, after 15 prior denials, two members of the California parole board recommended that Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted killer of Robert F. Kennedy, be released from prison. Ultimately, it will be up to the full parole board, the governor of California, or possibly the California state courts to decide whether Sirhan goes free.
We each consider ourselves compassionate individuals. We each adhere to a religion that teaches the virtue of forgiveness and redemption. We each have experience in public safety and national security. We each remember the full impact of Bobby Kennedy’s loss on his family, the nation and the world.
We each oppose parole for Sirhan Sirhan.
We each consider ourselves compassionate individuals. We each adhere to a religion that teaches the virtue of forgiveness and redemption.
For starters, under the law of California and elsewhere, a showing of remorse is a factor that supports parole. Sirhan fails that test. Even after 53 years’ reflection in jail, Sirhan still avoids a straightforward acknowledgment of the fact that, in a room full of witnesses, he was the one who killed Robert Kennedy. Though Sirhan acknowledges he fired a gun at Kennedy, at his most recent parole hearing the best he could do was to express sorrow for the crime “if I did in fact do that.” One parole commissioner noted Sirhan’s “lack of taking complete responsibility."
Then there are the views of the Kennedy family. Their views should be given great weight. Morally they should have a voice — not because they are Kennedys, but because they are the direct victims of Sirhan’s crime. Compassion is in the DNA of the Kennedy family. Yet, it is significant that most of the family, including Bobby’s wife, Ethel, oppose parole. Kennedy’s murder left 11 children of all ages without a father. The youngest, Rory was born six months after her father died. David Kennedy learned of his father’s shooting watching TV, and died of a drug overdose 16 years later. Ethel Kennedy was left a single mother. The extended Kennedy family had to absorb the pain and shock of their loved one’s public murder just five years after his older brother’s public murder.
Finally, we oppose parole because of the gravity of the crime. Legally, Sirhan stands convicted of an act of first-degree murder committed by one man against another. The reality is that Sirhan’s crime was a political assassination that likely altered the course of American history. It was in a crime against the nation as a whole.
In June 1968 America was in turmoil. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated two months before. The Vietnam War raged on. With his unique blend of eloquence and compassion, Bobby Kennedy promised to restore hope, end the war and bring us together. We saw his eloquence and compassion on display in impromptu remarks in Indianapolis the night King was killed, and while touring poor white communities in Appalachia. We saw his ability to bring us together in the thousands of working class whites, Blacks, Boy Scouts, nuns and police officers who stood vigil and watched his slow, sad funeral train travel along the Northeast corridor. Arguably no American politician has attracted such a broad coalition of Americans since.
The night of June 4, 1968, was a pivotal moment for the country. Kennedy had won the crucial California primary, propelling him on a trajectory to win the Democratic nomination and possibly the presidency. As he concluded his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles with the words “It’s on to Chicago and let’s win there,” Americans looked to Kennedy to recapture Camelot, and make us optimistic about the future of our country again.
That all came crashing down minutes later when Sirhan shot Kennedy in a kitchen passageway of the hotel.
Following Kennedy’s death, the Vietnam War continued for another seven years, tens of thousands more American troops died, Watergate became known as more than a hotel, and Americans’ trust and confidence in their government and their leaders spiraled downward.
Each of us believes this course of American history would have been different and better had Bobby Kennedy lived beyond June 1968.
Each of us believes this course of American history would have been different and better had Bobby Kennedy lived beyond June 1968. We can never know with certainty whether Kennedy would have been elected president in 1968. We do know with certainty that, with a .22 caliber pistol, Sirhan Sirhan took it upon himself to deny Americans the opportunity to make that pivotal choice at the ballot box. That was Sirhan’s crime against the nation.
It must not be forgotten that Sirhan hated Robert Kennedy for his support of military aid to Israel, that Sirhan proclaimed that he killed Kennedy “for my country,” and that in 1973 Palestinian gunmen in Sudan took several diplomats hostage and killed three, including two Americans, when the U.S. refused to release Palestinian prisoners, including Sirhan.
Sirhan was initially sentenced to death in 1969. A California Supreme Court ruling in 1972 converted that death penalty to life imprisonment. Since then, the California criminal justice system has been unyielding in its view that, for the man who assassinated Bobby Kennedy, life means life. We urge California authorities to not bend from that view.