RFK Assassin's Lawyer Says He Is Rehabilitated, Should Get Parole After 53 Years in Prison

The lawyer of the man who assassinated U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 argued Sirhan Sirhan, 77, is rehabilitated and should be granted parole after 53 years in prison during his 16th parole hearing on Friday, the Associated Press reported.

The California Parole Board members will decide whether Sirhan should be released and if he is rehabilitated after serving years for shooting RFK while he was a Democratic presidential candidate, a few years after his brother, President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Sirhan has maintained he has no memory of carrying out the murder.

"We can't change the past, but he was not sentenced to life without the possibility of parole," Sirhan's defense attorney, Angela Berry, said before the hearing while speaking to the AP.

"To justify denying it based on the gravity of the crime and the fact that it disenfranchised millions of Americans is ignoring the rehabilitation that has occurred and that rehabilitation is a more relevant indicator of whether or not a person is still a risk to society," she added.

Parole Board Commissioner Robert Barton said some of RFK's family members and others sent letters against Sirhan being given parole.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Sirhan Sirhan in 1968
Senator Robert F. Kennedy's assassin Sirhan Sirhan's lawyer argues he is rehabilitated and should get parole during his 16th parole hearing. In this photo, Sirhan (R) and his attorney Russell E. Parsons are photographed as they leave the courtroom following a trial hearing. Uncredited/Getty Images

During Sirhan's 16th parole hearing, it was the first time no prosecutor was there to argue he should be kept behind bars.

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, a former police officer who took office last year after running on a reform platform, says he idolized the Kennedys and mourned RFK's assassination but is sticking to his policy that prosecutors have no role in deciding whether prisoners should be released.

Relitigating a case decades after a crime should not be the job of prosecutors, even in notorious cases, he said.

"The role of a prosecutor and their access to information ends at sentencing," Alex Bastian, special adviser to Gascón, said in a statement Thursday.

Some members of Los Angeles law enforcement and the public also submitted letters opposing Sirhan's release, Barton said at the start of the proceeding Friday. The board would consider past arguments by prosecutors opposing his release, depending how relevant they are, he said.

At least one of Kennedy's sons, Douglas Kennedy, was in attendance, but it wasn't immediately clear if he was opposing Sirhan's release. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has spoken in favor of his release and other children have called for a reinvestigation of the killing, which some believe involved a second shooter.

Sirhan, appearing remotely, sat in front of a camera and waved. He was in a blue prison uniform with a paper towel folded like a handkerchief and tucked into his pocket.

RFK was a Democratic presidential candidate when he was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after delivering a victory speech in the pivotal California primary.

Sirhan said he disagreed with people who said he was angry for spending so much of his life behind bars and committed to living peacefully.

"I would never put myself in jeopardy again," he said. "You have my pledge. I will always look to safety and peace and non-violence."

Before the hearing, Berry said she planned to argue that the board's decision should be based on who Sirhan is today and not about past events, which is what the board has based its parole denials on before. She said she plans to focus on his exemplary record in prison and show that he poses no danger.

Sirhan's hearing was being presided over by a two-person panel that usually announces its decision the same day. After that, the Parole Board staff has 90 days to review the decision, and then it is handed over to the governor for consideration.

Sirhan was sentenced to death after his conviction, but that sentence was commuted to life when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972. At his last parole hearing in 2016, commissioners concluded after more than three hours of intense testimony that Sirhan did not show adequate remorse or understand the enormity of his crime.

Berry said California laws approved since 2018 support her case. One she plans to point out to the board favors releasing certain older prisoners who committed crimes at a young age when the brain is prone to impulsivity. Sirhan was 24 at the time of the assassination.

Although Sirhan has in the past stuck to his account that he doesn't remember the killing, he has recalled events before the crime in detail—going to a shooting range that day, visiting the hotel in search of a party and returning after realizing he was too drunk to drive after downing Tom Collins cocktails.

Just before the assassination, he drank coffee in a hotel pantry with a woman to whom he was attracted. The next thing he has said he remembered was being choked and unable to breathe as he was taken into custody. At his 2016 hearing, he said he felt remorse for any crime victim but couldn't take responsibility for the shooting.

Sirhan told the panel then that if released, he hoped he would be deported to Jordan or live with his brother in Pasadena, California.

After 15 denials for his release, Berry said it's difficult to predict how much of an impact the prosecution's absence will have on the outcome.

"I like to think it'll make a difference. But I think everybody is not impervious to the fact that this is political," she said.

Robert F. Kennedy Before His Assassination
In this June 5, 1968, file photo, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy addresses campaign workers moments before being shot in Los Angeles. His killer, Sirhan Sirhan, is again asking for parole after 53 years in prison. Dick Strobel/AP Photo