In a surprise turn of events last month and after 15 previous attempts, a two-member panel of California’s parole board recommended that the convicted killer of Senator Robert F. Kennedy be released.
The initial decision to free Sirhan Sirhan after more than five decades behind bars must now be reviewed by the full parole board before it goes to Governor Gavin Newsom for final approval – a process likely to take months.
The parole recommendation has divided the Kennedy family and is certain to embroil a section of the nation in a tense debate over politics, prison reform, religious values and rehabilitation.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and his brother Douglas H. Kennedy, who both weighed in to support Sirhan’s release at the 27 August virtual hearing, represent one side of the controversy surrounding their father’s death and its aftermath.
Against the background of a lack of public trust in government and politicians, their position is a coupling of pragmatic doubt as to the official account of what occurred that fateful night 53 years ago and a willingness to forgive Sirhan for his involvement, whatever it may have been.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, is also in favor of reopening the investigation into her father’s assassination.
However, six of their siblings seem to accept the official version and are opposed to Sirhan’s release.
An early case of blowback
And in recent days, Robert F. Kennedy’s 93-year-old widow Ethel Kennedy broke her silence to oppose Sirhan’s release.
In acknowledging the prosecution’s narrative that Sirhan acted alone and was motivated by Robert F. Kennedy’s solidifying support for Israel, we would have diagnosed one of the earliest and most poignant examples of blowback resulting from US support for the Zionist enterprise.
Sirhan has been punished for the murder, but the blowback, political fallout and harm underlying that motive are a proximate result of the unethical and disastrous support for an illegal occupier state perpetrating war crimes.
Israel’s habitual violations of international law and UN resolutions are incessantly endangering the US, and this mounting liability has become a source of instability worldwide.
Shared by Robert F. Kennedy and many Americans, the initial attraction and deference extended to the Zionist movement in founding a state over the ruins of Palestine has eroded markedly over the past several years.
Given what is known about the atrocities committed by Israel against a defenseless civilian population, it’s not difficult to empathize with Sirhan’s childhood plight – even while of course rejecting his actions.
Born in 1944, he was a victim of the dispossession of the Palestinians from their homeland.
Decades ago, his mother recounted how Sirhan was scarred by the horrific violence he witnessed as a young child, when the family fled Musrara, the Jerusalem neighborhood where he was born, as Zionist forces conquered and ethnically cleansed the western part of the city.
While many others who had similar experiences may have been more resilient, even the psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution acknowledged that these early experiences likely influenced Sirhan’s behavior on the night Kennedy was gunned down.
Sirhan revered Bobby Kennedy.
“All my hopes were focused on Robert Kennedy,” he once told an interviewer.
His love of Kennedy, the champion of the downtrodden, was shattered by the senator’s support for the entity that tore him from his home and made him a refugee. As one of the downtrodden, he felt betrayed.
While deeply tragic, for the victim and his family, as well as for the offender, it is a lesson in blowback we are beseeched to pay heed to.
Robert F. Kennedy traveled to British-occupied Palestine in April 1948, one month before Israel came into existence and at a time when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had already been ethnically cleansed.
He may have admired its Jewish inhabitants for what they had achieved, but would he have continued to be infatuated with what Israel has become?
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. believes it is time to reconcile with the past.
This should apply to the conflict over Palestine, as well as Sirhan’s redemption.
No danger to the public
Sirhan has long maintained that he doesn’t remember the shooting, and has downplayed the evidence, such as the journal found in his home with “RFK must die” scribbled in it.
His critics point to opportunity and motive in these seemingly convenient lapses of memory and judgment.
From the events of that June night in 1968, until his sentence was commuted to life with the chance of parole in 1972, he was in a hazed state grappling with the death sentence he faced.
This – and the trauma of his youth – perhaps affected his memory, rendering him susceptible to the many alternative scenarios posited to him by some of his attorneys, and exaggerated by conspiracy theorists.
Understandably, this became an impediment to previous parole boards’ expectations that he take full and unmitigated responsibility for his actions and demonstrate complete remorse.
However, such a demand to shoulder the trauma of an entire nation goes beyond what the law requires. That is more than any one soul can bear. Yet despite his memory lapses, Sirhan has taken responsibility and repeatedly expressed deep remorse.
“I sincerely regret my actions,” he said in 1989. “I was young, I was immature, I was wild.”
This time around the board agreed he should go free. And for good reason.
Now in his late 70s and in poor health, he has been consistently assessed for over 30 years by Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation psychologists and psychiatrists as presenting an extremely low risk of violence.
He would in all likelihood be deported to Jordan – not his native Jerusalem – where he would be restricted to a quiet life, far away from the United States.
He has been a model prisoner over the past five decades, and it may needlessly cost taxpayers millions of dollars to house him and provide him with medical care in his old age.
Trauma and forgiveness
Perhaps even more important, Sirhan has been forgiven by some of his victims – like Paul Schrade, who believes that Sirhan shot him on that fateful night in 1968, but that it was the bullets from a second gunman who killed his friend Senator Kennedy. At least one other person shot that night has not opposed his release.
What about the ongoing trauma being inflicted by providing Israel with annual multibillion dollar aid packages and weapons to steal more occupied land, forcibly expel Palestinians, maim and kill at will a defenseless population while traumatizing and orphaning the children of Gaza’s open-air prison?
Do those exploiting the Kennedy family’s tragedy have the same sympathy and sense of justice for the thousands of Palestinians killed with the aid and encouragement of the United States? Can they see in one of those Gaza children mowed down or bombed to pieces with our weapons a potential Kennedy-like statesman for Palestine?
In 1972 the US Supreme Court ruled that death penalty statutes such as that used in Sirhan’s case violated the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.
When Sirhan’s death sentence was commuted he was resentenced to life with the possibility of parole. The later-enacted life without parole provision in California law, touted by some as an alternative to the death penalty, is itself in some instances problematic and cruel. Regardless, it is not the applicable legal standard in Sirhan’s case.
In last month’s parole hearing, for the first time, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office did not intervene to oppose Sirhan’s release. Instead, the incumbent George Gascón decided to stay neutral and allow the parole board to review the case according to the law.
According to Sirhan’s attorney Angela Berry, the parole board commented that it would not have changed its decision even if the district attorney’s office had been present to oppose Sirhan’s release.
The full board should not be swayed to overturn the decision of its members by the barrage of partisan politics and pressure it will almost certainly face, now that the hitherto silent Kennedy family members have been roused to opposition.
Governor Newsom – who survived this month’s recall election with a clear majority – should reject the distracting politics, respect the law and uphold that decision.
Not only will a decision to overturn this recommendation for release lead to high-profile court proceedings – as Sirhan’s defense team is ready and prepared to file appeals – it will unnecessarily set off a new round of conspiracy theories and renew calls for a reinvestigation.
Even if the appeals process is not successful, subsequent applications for parole are in the offing.
Furthermore, his continued incarceration will bring unwanted attention to the Kennedy legacy, needlessly highlight the many accusations pointed against Robert F. Kennedy and resuscitate the many conspiracy theories floating around for decades.
Sirhan has served 639 months or over 19,450 days. Every second of those approximately 28 million minutes has been a moment for him to reflect, consider and come to terms with his crimes.
He’s not the troubled 24-year-old youth he was in 1968. He is a 77-year-old man seeking redemption.
Islamic law, like US law, allows the death penalty for first-degree murder. However, the victim’s family can waive execution if it forgives the killer – an open-minded concept not embedded in the American criminal justice system.
The Christian burden for forgiveness is even greater, though.
In teaching the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
And he followed it up, commending: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Douglas Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy’s youngest son, lived out his Christian creed at the parole hearing.
“I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr. Sirhan face to face,” he said. “I think I’ve lived my life both in fear of him and his name in one way or another. And I am grateful today to see him as a human being worthy of compassion and love.”
Perhaps with the release of Sirhan Sirhan we too can demonstrate as a nation that we believe in forgiveness and are capable of redemption.
His release would be the best outcome for the nation.
Ashraf W. Nubani is an attorney and a Palestinian American and Muslim community leader in the Washington, DC, metro area.