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Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan returns to 16th parole hearing

Newsom rejected Sirhan’s freedom in 2022, saying that he remains a threat to the public and hasn’t taken responsibility for a crime that changed American history

Sirhan Sirhan
This June 1968 photo shows Sirhan Sirhan, right, accused assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, with his attorney Russell E. Parsons in Los Angeles.Anonymous (AP)

Nearly two years ago, a California parole board voted to free Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, but the decision was later overturned by the governor. Sirhan Sirhan will once again appear before the board Wednesday at a hearing at a federal prison in San Diego County to ask to be let out.

Even if the board rules that Sirhan is suitable for release a second time, his lawyer, Angela Berry, said she doesn’t expect it to change Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mind because of his “affinity for R.F. Kennedy,” who Newsom has cited as a political hero.

That’s why she said she’s also turning to the courts. The parole board hearing comes nearly six months after Berry asked a Los Angeles County judge to reverse Newsom’s denial. The case is ongoing.

Newsom rejected Sirhan’s freedom in 2022, saying that he remains a threat to the public and hasn’t taken responsibility for a crime that changed American history.

Berry has said the 78-year-old man, who has spent more than 54 years in prison, is not a danger to society and should be released. She said that will be the main point she and Sirhan will make to the board, again.

“They found him suitable for release last time and nothing has changed,” Berry said. “He’s continued to show great behavior.”

Sirhan Sirhan reacts during a parole hearing on Feb. 10, 2016, at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
Sirhan Sirhan reacts during a parole hearing on Feb. 10, 2016, at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. Gregory Bull (AP)

In a 3 1/2-minute message played during a news conference held by Berry in September, Sirhan said he feels remorse every day for his actions. It was the first time Sirhan’s voice had been heard publicly since a televised parole hearing in 2011, before California barred audio or visual recordings of such proceedings.

“To transform this weight into something positive, I have dedicated my life to self-improvement, the mentoring of others in prison on how to live a peaceful life that revolves around nonviolence,” he said. “By doing this, I ensure that no other person is victimized by my actions again and hopefully make an impact on others to follow.”

Sirhan shot Kennedy moments after the U.S. senator from New York claimed victory in California’s pivotal Democratic presidential primary in 1968. He wounded five others during the shooting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Sirhan originally was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972.

He was denied parole 15 times until 2021, when the board recommended his release.

Sirhan’s younger brother, Munir Sirhan, has said his brother can live with him in Pasadena, California, if he is paroled. Sirhan Sirhan has waived his right to fight deportation to his native Jordan.

Berry filed a 53-page writ of habeas corpus asking the judge to rule that Newsom violated state law, which holds that inmates should be paroled unless they pose a current unreasonable public safety risk. Recent California laws also required the parole panel to consider that Sirhan committed the offense at a young age — 24 — and that he is now an older prisoner.

She is challenging the governor’s reversal as an “abuse of discretion,” a denial of Sirhan’s constitutional right to due process and as a violation of California law. She also alleges that Newsom misstated the facts in his decision.

Newsom’s office declined to comment.

Newsom overruled two parole commissioners who had found that Sirhan no longer was a risk. Among other factors, Newsom said the Christian Palestinian who immigrated from Jordan has failed to disclaim violence committed in his name, adding to the risk that he could incite political unrest.

The ruling split the Kennedy family, with RFK’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, and six of Kennedy’s nine surviving children opposing his parole. A lawyer representing those members of the family is expected to present their arguments at the hearing in opposition to his release.

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