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RFK's children speak out on Sirhan Sirhan

RFK children speak out on Sirhan Sirhan parole
RFK children speak out on Sirhan Sirhan parol... 09:27

Fifty-three Decembers ago, members of the Kennedy family gathered for their first Christmas without Robert Kennedy. Ethel, his wife, was just home from the hospital introducing the family to the newest member of the Kennedy clan, Rory. She was born six months after her father's assassination.

Her brothers and sisters have vague memories of that Christmas. "My mother was a single mother of 11 children – [ages] 16 to infant - who had just watched her husband be killed," Kerry Kennedy told correspondent Lee Cowan.

"She's tough, she's tough," Chris Kennedy said of his mother. "She's the toughest person I've ever met."

Kerry Kennedy was just nine; Chris was only four. What sticks are fuzzy images – brief glimpses of their father. Moments like that, and the future ones, were lost when a 24-year-old assassin named Sirhan Sirhan took it all away.

Kerry said, "All those times when you want your father – when my brother David died, where's my Dad? When my brother Michael died, where's my dad? When I got married and I walked down that aisle alone."

Robert Kennedy with Wife and Ten Children
Robert and Ethel Kennedy with 10 of their children in an undated photo. Their 11th, Rory, was born six months after Robert was assassinated.  Bettmann/Getty Images

Chris said, "We've all been through thousands of hours of therapy, 28-day programs, all sorts of things to, well, recover from the damage and the crime. We are living with it every day."

During the spring of 1968, New York Senator Robert Kennedy had been campaigning in California for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Cowan asked, "When he was running, do you remember the crowds? Do you remember his supporters?"

"I remember the crowds," said Chris.

"Yes, Lots and lots of crowds," said Kerry. "He had a war he wanted to end. He had pain he wanted to heal in our country … And that was taken away from all of us, not just Chris and me, but you, and everybody in this audience."

It wasn't a given. The state's winner-take-all primary was a must-win. But Kennedy still took time out of the campaign to take his kids to Disneyland.

"Went with John Glenn, and I remember especially going on this rocket ship ride," said Kerry. "With John Glenn!"

"It was so much fun," said Chris, "and then just a couple of days later, he was gone."

In the early morning hours of June 5, Kennedy claimed victory over both Senator Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

"My thanks to all of you, now it's on to Chicago and let's win there."

Chris and Kerry, though, were fast asleep when the race was called. Kerry said, "I woke up the next morning, and I went and turned on the television to watch cartoons, and the flash comes up, you know, sitting cross-legged in front of the TV set. And that's how I found out that my father had been shot by Sirhan Sirhan."

There are plenty of places where you can see the aftermath in that kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel – we're not going to show it here. The Kennedys have seen it enough.

"I remember just going into my room, and laying on my bed, and praying for Daddy, and praying for our family," said Kerry. "And then, also praying for the guy who killed him, praying that he wouldn't be killed, because I didn't want anyone else to die the way my father had died."

Cowan asked, "So, the day you found out that your father had been killed, you prayed for his assassin?"

"Yeah, immediately."

"Do you still pray for him?"

"No."

Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian from Jordan, admitted he was angry at Kennedy for supporting Israel, a rage the evidence later revealed had been brewing for some time.

"He wrote in his diary that he wanted to kill Daddy," said Kerry.

"A thousand times, he writes, 'Bobby Kennedy must die,'" added Chris. "A thousand times. before he goes in the hotel and kills our father."

It was, said Kerry, "a totally premeditated, political terrorist assassination."

kerry-and-chris-kennedy-horiz.jpg
Kerry and Chris Kennedy, children of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. CBS News

Sirhan was convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to die in California's gas chamber. But when the state briefly outlawed capital punishment, his sentence was commuted to life.

And that meant every few years he'd come up for parole.

For more than five decades, Sirhan has maintained he doesn't remember the shooting.

In 1997 he told the parole board, "I believe that I am innocent of this crime, and that I did not commit this crime … I did not shoot Robert Kennedy or kill him."

Kerry said, "He says somebody else did it. He says, 'Well, maybe ...'"

"You don't buy it at all?" asked Cowan.

"I know he's a murderer, so it's not a big leap to believe he's a liar," Chris replied.

Fifteen times he was denied parole, mostly for what California's parole board saw as a lack of genuine remorse.

In 1983 he said, "I feel like as if I'm a parrot, repeating the same refrain that, I am sorry, I do feel remorse."

But this past August, at age 77, Sirhan got another chance – and this time, things had changed.

A recent California law required the parole board to consider things like age, health, even childhood trauma as mitigating factors – things it hadn't considered before. Sirhan was still cagey about his direct involvement in the assassination, but as one board member said: "We do not find that your lack of taking complete responsibility adds to current dangerousness."

In short – much to Chris and Kerry Kennedy's disbelief – the board decided that Sirhan Sirhan was no longer a threat to society, and recommended his release.

Kerry said, "Sirhan Sirhan killed our father. He also shot five other people that night, five other people that night. He hasn't apologized, taken responsibility for killing our father, or for the other five people! What would that do to your soul? Wouldn't you be walking around saying, 'Oh my God, how did this happen? How do I stop this? I'm so sorry. How can I make this up to you?' None of that."

Most of Kennedy's children – as well as Ethel Kennedy herself, at 93 - were shocked. But two of their brothers – Douglas Kennedy and Robert Kennedy Jr – split with the family, and applauded news of the release.

Chris said, "There's a hundred members of our family, you know, the descendants of Joe and Rose Kennedy, and we're very close to all of them. And there's two members of our family who don't agree. And anybody who has ever been part of a big family knows that's sort of how it shakes out."

In a letter to the parole board, Robert Kennedy Jr wrote: "Any opposition to Mr. Sirhan's release simply based on the crime, is contrary to the law and contrary to the concepts of redemption and forgiveness."

Kerry said, "For a victim, there's a spiritual process of forgiving. And I did that a very, very long ago."

"You have forgiven him?" asked Cowan.

"Yeah," she replied.

"Have you, too, Chris?"

"No, absolutely not. No. We're Catholics. We're not haters. We believe in forgiveness. But forgiveness has to come after an apology, and a recognition of the act itself, and the damage that was done. And that has not happened."

The fate of Robert Kennedy's assassin now rests with California's Democratic governor, Gavin

Newsom. He's been open about being a fan of RFK (referring to him as his "political hero"), and that's what Chris and Kerry Kennedy are clinging to, vowing they will fight all the way to the end.

"Parole is something that you earn. It's not a right that you have," said Kerry.

Chris said, "We need to be an advocate for our father. That's a duty to him. That's the legacy he taught us, the notion of duty and honor and what is required of a child, of a family, of a country."

       
Story produced by Mark Hudspeth. Editor: Ed Givnish.

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