RFK assassin’s parole recommendation ignites passions in divided family
Kennedy offspring divided on releasing Sirhan 53 years after their father’s murder
MOST OF THOSE with first-hand memories of his assassination have probably reached initial eligibility for Social Security. But 53 years after Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel, his murder is back in the news — and it is putting a fresh spotlight on divisions in a family that has repeatedly been forced to mourn in the harsh glare of public view.
On Friday, the two California parole commissioners assigned to hear his case recommended that Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of Kennedy’s June 1968 murder, be released from prison, saying the 77-year-old no longer posed a threat to society.
Sirhan, a Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem and said he was motivated by anger at Kennedy’s support for Israel, confessed to the murder and was sentenced to die in the California gas chamber.
The Kennedys’ liberal impulses have often put them ahead of the curve on criminal justice reform issues, and even the most painful personal tragedies have not always dimmed that outlook. In 1969, Sen. Edward Kennedy, the sole surviving brother in the family, urged that Sirhan’s death sentence be reduced to life in prison. That subsequently happened while his case was on appeal when California abolished the death penalty in 1972.
Six of Kennedy’s nine surviving offspring released a statement on Friday condemning the parole recommendation and vowing to fight it “every step of the way.”
“We are devastated that the man who murdered our father has been recommended for parole,” the six siblings wrote. “We adamantly oppose the parole and release of Sirhan Sirhan and are shocked by a ruling that we believe ignores the standards of parole of a confessed, first-degree murderer in the state of California.”
One of the six, Joseph Kennedy II, who served 12 year in Congress, beginning in 1987, representing the Eighth District in Massachusetts, released a statement to the Globe on Sunday calling the ruling a “grievous error.” Another Kennedy son, Maxwell Kennedy, penned an op-ed in Los Angeles Times calling the thought of Sirhan’s release “sickening.”
But two of RFK’s children support his release. Douglas Kennedy, a correspondent for Fox News who was 1 at the time of father’s murder, attended Friday’s hearing and at one point told Sirhan, “I do have some love for you.” Robert Kennedy Jr., who submitted a letter supporting his release, met with Sirhan in 2017.
Paul Schrade, a labor organizer who was one of five people non-fatally wounded by gunfire that June night at the Ambassador Hotel, has insisted that there was more than one gunman and that Sirhan did not fire the shots that killed Kennedy. Robert Kennedy, Jr., has also said he does not believe Sirhan killed his father, but he is given to conspiracy theories and has been roundly criticized by his siblings for his outspoken opposition to vaccines.
Sirhan is a long way from walking free. The full 17-member parole board must sign-off on the recommendation. The decision would then require the approval of California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat currently fighting to survive a raucous and unpredictable recall campaign.But the landscape has clearly changed when it comes to criminal justice issues.
The New York Times reported that Friday’s parole hearing — Sirhan’s 16th over the decades he’s been imprisoned — was the first in which no prosecutor appeared to argue for his continued confinement. George Gascón, the reform-focused Los Angeles district attorney elected last year, has said his office’s default policy will be not to appear at parole hearings, arguing that the parole board has all the information needed to weigh a decision.