SAN DIEGO (AP) — U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's assassin was granted a proposal of parole suitability Friday after two of RFK's sons spoke in favor of Sirhan Sirhan's release and prosecutors declined to argue he should be kept behind bars.
The decision was a major victory for the 77-year-old prisoner, though it does not assure his release.
The ruling by the two-person panel at Sirhan's 16th parole hearing will be reviewed over the next 90 days by the California Parole Board's staff. Then it will be sent to the governor, who will have 30 days to decide whether to grant it, reverse it or modify it.
Douglas Kennedy, who was a toddler when his father was gunned down in 1968, said he was moved to tears by Sirhan Sirhan's remorse and should be released if he's found to not be a threat to others.
"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."
The New York senator and brother of President John F. Kennedy was a Democratic presidential candidate when he was gunned down June 6, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after delivering a victory speech in the pivotal California primary.
Sirhan, who was convicted of first-degree murder, has said he doesn't remember the killing.
Sirhan's defense attorney, Angela Berry, argued 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.
"We can't change the past, but he was not sentenced to life without the possibility of parole," Berry told the AP on Thursday. "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."
Sirhan Sirhan, 77, told members of the California Parole Board at this 16th bid for freedom that he had learned to control his anger and was 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."
Some Kennedy family members, Los Angeles law enforcement officers and the public submitted letters opposing Sirhan's release, Parole Board Commissioner Robert Barton said at the start of the proceeding held virtually Friday, where Sirhan appeared from San Diego County prison.
Prosecutors declined to participate or oppose his release under a policy by Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, a former police officer who took office last year after running on a reform platform.
Gascón, who said he idolized the Kennedys and mourned RFK's assassination, believes the prosecutors' role ends at sentencing and they should not influence decisions to release prisoners.
"We don't have a DA here, but I have to consider all sides," Barton said, noting it would consider arguments made in the past by prosecutors opposing his release, depending on their relevance.
Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian from Jordan, has acknowledged he was angry at Kennedy for his support of Israel.
When asked about how he feels about the Middle East conflict today, Sirhan broke down crying and temporarily couldn't speak.
"Take a few deep breaths," said Barton, who noted the conflict had not gone away and still touched a nerve.
Sirhan said he doesn't follow what's going on in the region but thinks about the suffering of refugees.
"The misery that those people are experiencing. It's painful," Sirhan said.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has spoken in favor of Sirhan's release in the past, wrote in favor of paroling Sirhan.
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.
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