UPDATED, 12:43 PM PT August 28, with additional Kennedy family and expert comment: Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968, was granted parole on Friday, but the decision by a state panel does not guarantee his release.
A two-person parole board granted Sirhan’s request after a hearing, but it still must be approved by the board’s staff and then by the California governor, according to the Associated Press.
Sirhan, 77, had sought parole more than a dozen times since he was convicted of killing Kennedy.
Kennedy’s youngest son, Douglas, spoke in favor of Sirhan’s parole, according to the AP.
“I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr. Sirhan face to face,” Kennedy said, according to the AP. “I think I’ve lived my life both in fear of him and his name in one way or another. And I am grateful today to see him as a human being worthy of compassion and love.”
But others in the family disagreed with the decision.
Rory Kennedy, the documentary filmmaker, wrote in a letter along with five other siblings that “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.” The six siblings urged the Parole Board staff, the full Parole Board and Newsom to reverse the initial recommendation.
Robert Kennedy was mortally wounded on June 5, 1968, shortly after speaking to exuberant supporters following his victory in the California presidential primary. Kennedy died just over a day later at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan. He and his wife, Ethel, had 10 children, and an 11th was born following his death.
Jared Eisenstat. a top parole attorney based in California, said that in cases, a victim’s family opinion is not treated as evidence for or against granting parole by the parole board.
“The issue is who they are now versus who they were then,” he said. “There really are only two questions in the whole hearing — who were you, and who are you,” he said.
Another factor is age, as elderly parolees are much less likely to pose a problem. “The standard is unreasonable risk of danger to society,” he said.
California, though, is one of three states where the governor can reject a parole board decisions. That has made some high-profile cases, like that of Manson family members, a political non-starter, Eisenstat noted. The entire Parole Board will have 120 days from Friday’s hearing to review the case, and then the governor would have 30 days after that to accept or reject the decision and allow the release. If the governor rejects it, it would go back to a parole panel for review.
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