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. 

But to now release him from prison? That is a bridge too far for most of Robert Kennedy’s children. 

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. 

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

But the landscape has clearly changed when it comes to criminal justice issues. 

Some of the current thinking and sentencing policies for murderers who have served decades in prison now argues for greater consideration of their release. One of the California parole commissioners who recommended Sirhan’s release, Robert Barton, said that laws passed since his last parole hearing five years ago require the board to consider factors such as his age at the time of the crime. Sirhan was 24 at the time of the assassination.

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.