THE 1960s marked a profound change in the American psyche. Gone was the optimism of the post-World War II era as Americans began to embrace a profound distrust of their political and government systems. It was a decade marred by civil unrest and punctuated by three high profile political assassinations: that of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
But like so many other high-profile events, time gradually begins to erase them from our memories and the perpetrators, as reminders of these events, are relegated to the dust bin of history. Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby just two days after Oswald assassinated President Kennedy. He was never brought to trial.
James Earl Ray, the assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King, confessed to his crime and was sentenced to 100 years in prison. He later recanted his confession and died in prison in 1998 – barely a memory in our public consciousness.
Sirhan Sirhan was tried for the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy, convicted, and sentenced to death. His sentence was eventually commuted to life with the possibility of parole, and he currently is confined in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. He has been incarcerated for 53 years.
This past Friday, I had the unique opportunity to be a virtual observer at Sirhan’s parole hearing because it related to my academic research. It was Sirhan’s sixteenth parole hearing since his conviction; his prior requests for parole were denied on 15 occasions and, quite frankly, I expected this one to be denied as well.
In my mind, Sirhan’s situation is a test case for a criminal justice system that is intended to rehabilitate but all too often just metes out punishment. He was convicted of a heinous murder that shook the world and probably redirected the course of US history. Should he get the same kind of consideration for release that others in his situation should – but rarely do – receive?
At this point, there is ample historical evidence suggesting that Sirhan did not fire the shot that killed Kennedy. That evidence, coupled with the Los Angeles Police Department’s destruction of much of the evidence used to convict Sirhan, could result in a different verdict if he was granted a new trial. He could possibly be convicted of attempted murder, which would result in a sentence for a fixed term of years, rather than first degree murder, which resulted in a life sentence. But that was not the basis for determining whether Sirhan was a suitable candidate for parole.
There were about a dozen people present at the virtual hearing, including the defendant and two members of the Kennedy family, Douglas Kennedy – Sen. Kennedy’s son – as well as Robert Kennedy III, RFK’s grandson. A third family member, Robert Kennedy Jr., was having difficulty logging onto the virtual portal, but had forwarded a letter in support of Sirhan’s request for parole that was read into the record. However, six of Sen. Kennedy’s nine surviving children opposed the grant of suitability for parole.
Watching the hearing, I got a sense that I was an eyewitness to history, but was also moved – almost to tears – on several occasions, listening to Sirhan talk about his life before and after his conviction (he was 24 when he was convicted and is now 77 years old) as well as members of the Kennedy family talk about losing a loved one but, nevertheless, offering their assistance to Sirhan should be gain release.
Paul Schrade, a Kennedy campaign aide, who was shot in the head by Sirhan on the awful night, also offered testimony at the hearing and advocated for Sirhan’s release.
Members of the parole board are charged with making the suitability determination. Commissioners Robert Barton and Teresa Meighan questioned Sirhan for several hours about what caused him to bring a loaded weapon to that event, his excessive consumption of alcohol just before the shooting, his prior statements criticizing Sen. Kennedy for his support of Israel, and other factors that led to his involvement in Kennedy’s death.
Sirhan and his attorney, Angela Berry, focused on his activities since his incarceration, including anger management counseling, making positive associations with prison staff and fellow prisoners, and completing his associate’s degree and partial completion of his bachelor’s degree. Three current corrections officers at the Donovan Corrections Facility submitted letters of support for Sirhan’s request for parole. Several counsellors from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation classified Sirhan as being at low risk of recidivism, and not a danger to himself or society. In addition, recent changes in California law required the commissioners to consider mitigating factors in Sirhan’s status as a youthful offender as well as his current status as an elderly prisoner.
In the end, Commissioners Barton and Meighan determined that Sirhan was a suitable candidate for parole. We should applaud them for their objectivity and sense of compassion. This is the criminal justice system working as it should – with a focus on rehabilitation, rather than punishment. But one must wonder if this same determination could have or should have been made sooner.
Paul L. DeBole is an assistant professor of political science at Lasell University in Newton.