More than a half century after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the midst of an ascendant presidential run, his killer was granted parole last week on the determination that he is no longer a threat to society and recognizes the severity of his crime. Sirhan Sirhan, 77, was 24 years old when he fatally shot Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles during a campaign event.
Born in Jordan to a Christian Palestinian refugee family, Sirhan was embittered by Kennedy’s support for Israel. He was initially sentenced to death, but it was commuted in 1972 to life in prison after California briefly outlawed capital punishment. The assassination of Kennedy rocked the country, as he was regarded as the frontrunner in the 1968 election, a promising young candidate who would have continued the policies of his older brother John F. Kennedy, who was also assassinated, five years earlier. In the absence of Kennedy, the Democratic Party was divided on the Vietnam War, urban unrest, and civil rights, resulting in the victory of Republican Richard Nixon, who ran on a “law and order” platform.
Two decades after committing the crime, Sirhan spoke to reporter David Frost in 1989, explaining his motive. “My only connection with Robert Kennedy was his sole support of Israel and his deliberate attempt to send those 50 bombers to Israel to obviously do harm to the Palestinians,” he said in the hour-long interview. He also added that he was “not doing it out of personal malice toward the man, but out of concern for other people,” and expressed remorse for his actions.
He became eligible for parole in 1975 and his applications for release have been rejected by the state’s parole board 16 times, until this year when the Los Angeles County Prosecutor did not express an opinion on the matter. “If someone is the same person who committed an atrocious crime, that person will correctly not be found suitable for release,” prosecution spokesman Alex Bastian said in a statement. “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.”
The granting of parole divided the Kennedy family, with two of his children – Robert Jr. and Douglas – expressing support, and the other six – Joe, Courtney, Kerry, Christopher, Maxwell, and Rory – opposing his release.
“As children of Robert F. Kennedy, we are devastated that the man who murdered our father has been recommended for parole. Our father’s death is a very difficult matter for us to discuss publicly and for the past many decades we have declined to engage directly in the parole process,” their statement noted. “Given today’s unexpected recommendation by the California parole board after 15 previous decisions to deny release, we feel compelled to make our position clear. 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 decision of the parole board can be overruled by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall election this year and had not yet indicated his position on Sirhan’s parole. Sirhan is a Jordanian citizen and may face deportation to that country if he is released.
Kennedy’s admiration for Israel was expressed during its war of independence in 1948, when he was 22 and working as a reporter for The Boston Globe. “The Jewish people in Palestine who believe in and have been working toward this national state have become an immensely proud and determined people. It is already a truly great modern example of the birth of a nation with the primary ingredients of dignity and self-respect,” he wrote at the time.
In 1964, nine months after his brother’s assassination, Kennedy settled in New York and ran for the United States Senate. At the time, his other brother Ted was representing Massachusetts in the Senate. He was popular among Jewish voters for his support of Israel, and likewise among black voters for championing the Civil Rights Act and anti-poverty programs. He was 42 when he was murdered. In Queens, the Triborough Bridge, a public high school in Kew Gardens Hills, and a Democratic Club in Forest Hills, carry his name as a memorial for his service to the state and the country.
By Sergey Kadinsky