If Released from Prison, Bobby Kennedy Assassin Sirhan Sirhan Plans to Live in Pasadena

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, the Pasadena resident convicted of assassinating U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) in 1968, plans to move back to his family’s Pasadena home if he is released from prison, his attorney told Pasadena Now


By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Now, 8/28/21


Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, the Pasadena resident convicted of assassinating U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) in 1968, plans to move back to his family’s Pasadena home if he is released from prison, his attorney told Pasadena Now.

A parole board in California voted on Friday to recommend suitability for parole for Sirhan. The decision at his 16th parole hearing came after LA County District Attorney George Gascón’s office decided to remain neutral, 52 years after Sirhan admitted to and was convicted of the killing.

However, the decision must still be reviewed by the full parole board for 90 days and then the governor of California will have 30 days to uphold, reverse or send the decision back to the board. Current California Governor Gavin Newsom is facing a recall election on Sept. 14, making it uncertain whether he will be the one to make that decision.

“The parole board today made a very reasoned and specific record of the reasons for making their findings,” Sirhan’s attorney Angela Berry of Encino told Pasadena Now. As to whether the decision stands, she said “it’s going to be pretty tight, but that remains to be seen.”

Berry said that if the governor rejects his parole, they will file a writ of habeas corpus at the trial court level. Berry, who has been representing Sirhan pro bono since summer 2020, has committed to continue representing him through to the conclusion of his case, with the anticipation that at the trial level she can be appointed by the court to receive some form of payment.

‘Sen. Kennedy was the hope of the world’

“Over half a century has passed, and that young impulsive kid I was does not exist anymore,” Sirhan told the two commissioners on the parole board, according to the Washington Post. “Sen. Kennedy was the hope of the world and I injured, and I harmed all of them and it pains me to experience that, the knowledge for such a horrible deed.”

Sirhan’s death sentence was reduced to life in prison after California abolished capital punishment in 1972. He has been eligible for release since 1975. Kennedy’s son Douglas Kennedy appeared at the hearing, telling the board, “I really do believe any prisoner who is found to be not a threat to themselves or the world should be released,” according to Associated Press reporter Julie Watson, the only journalist allowed to attend the hearing. “I believe that applies to everyone, every human being, including Mr. Sirhan. I was very deeply moved by Mr. Sirhan’s expression of remorse and at times it brought tears to my eyes and affected me very deeply.”

During his 1969 trial, Sirhan, a Palestinian, admitted that he shot and killed Kennedy with a .22-caliber pistol on June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles due to Kennedy’s support for Israel. Sirhan was 24 and a Pasadena City College student at the time. Kennedy was the Democratic front runner for president and had just come off stage at the Ambassador after delivering a victory speech for winning the state of California in the Democratic primary. Had he lived, he would likely have been the Democratic nominee for president and American history very well could have played out much differently.

Kennedy had previously served as attorney general under his brother President John F. Kennedy’s administration and was a champion of the Civil Rights Movement. He is survived by his wife, Ethel, now 93, and their nine children.

“What I think is quite clear is that… what has been going on in the United States over the period of the last three years, the division, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the division whether it’s between black and white, between the poor and the more affluent or between age groups or over the war in Vietnam, that we can start to work together,” Kennedy said on stage at the Ambassador moments before he was shot. “We are a great country and a selfish country and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running in the period of the next few months.”

While walking through the kitchen of the hotel, Sirhan approached Kennedy and shot him in the back from about one to three inches away, according to LA County Chief Medical Examiner and Coroner Thomas Noguchi, though witnesses said Sirhan was standing in front of Kennedy. Five others were wounded in the shooting. Olympic Decathlete Rafer Johnson and LA Rams defensive lineman Rosey Grier wrestled Sirhan to the ground. A total of eight shots were fired. Some believe there was a second shooter who was never identified, including Kennedy’s own son, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has also become known for his vehemently anti-vaccine views.

“I have been a strong advocate for the release of Mr. Sirhan B. Sirhan since I learned of evidence that was not presented to the court during his trial,” Kennedy Jr. wrote in a letter to the parole board.

One of those five victims, Paul Schrade, also submitted a letter to the parole board in support of Sirhan’s release because he believes someone other than Sirhan is responsible, even though Sirhan confessed. Berry argued rehabilitation to the parole board, not innocence.

‘Neighbors were in support of Sirhan coming back to the neighborhood’

Sirhan was 12 years old when his Palestinian family fled Israel and settled in Pasadena in 1956. Before PCC, he attended Eliot Junior High and John Muir High School.

Now 77, Sirhan plans to live with his brother Munir Sirhan in Pasadena if released from prison, according to Berry. She wrote in a pre-parole hearing briefing that Sirhan’s “incarceration over the last 53 years has caused him to not only mature chronologically, but emotionally and spiritually,” calling him “rehabilitated.”

“He and Munir just want to live out their remaining years obscurely and privately,” she wrote.

Should Sirhan be released, before he can move to Pasadena, the parole board imposed a condition that he first live in a halfway house for six months, which could be but won’t necessarily be in Pasadena.

“That is just simply based on the fact that he’s been institutionalized for 52 years,” Berry said. “They want to make sure that there’s a structured support system around him, so that he could acclimate back into a free society.”

Sirhan’s residence in Pasadena is also dependent on whether or not he is deported upon release. Berry said she is unsure of his chances of being deported.

“He does have an ICE detainer on him,” she said. “However, when we did a Freedom of Information Act request for the status of any removal, I just got a response from ICE indicating that they have no records on him. So I don’t know what to make of any of that at this point. But assuming he stays in California, yes, he would like to live with his brother in their Pasadena home. And we also have letters from neighbors on the street who have known the Sirhan family since the 1950s. Four letters went before the board today from neighbors who were in support of Sirhan coming back to the neighborhood. They had no issues with that. And that was very helpful to the board, obviously, and their comfort level in releasing him.”

Berry first began representing Sirhan after his brother called her based on a recommendation from one of her other clients in the same correctional facility.

“I hadn’t thought about Sirhan Sirhan and didn’t even know if he was still alive,” she said. “I didn’t know much about the case on a day-to-day conscious level at all. I thought it was a prank call, so I wasn’t in a hurry to call the number back. The next day, I got a call from an author up in Portland, Oregon, who’s been writing some books on different conspiracy cases, like the JFK conspiracy, looking into an RFK conspiracy, and said, ‘We were concerned that because you heard the name that you wouldn’t want to take on the case. If you want to call me first, I can fill you in on what’s going on.’”

At first, Berry said she was hesitant to take on the case but reconsidered after speaking with Kennedy Jr. and Schrade.

“Because of the gravity of the case and the infamy of the case, it caused me to have to do some soul searching and decide whether or not I wanted to take this on,” she said. “First of all, take it on, and secondly, take it on on a pro bono basis. And after learning a little bit more and talking to victim Paul Schrade and talking to Robert Kennedy Jr., I was intrigued. And so, here I am now.”

‘But for his vicious act, the rest of U.S. history would’ve been different’

The argument Berry presented to the parole board wasn’t that Sirhan is innocent of the shooting, but rather that he has been rehabilitated in prison. She pointed out that the law in California presumes that a person will be released on parole, unless the board finds that the person is still a current risk of danger to the public.

“We focused on all the rehabilitation that Mr. Sirhan has been doing, as well as took advantage of new laws that have come into effect since his last parole hearing in 2016, which favor release,” she said.

Those new laws include youthful offender mitigation that the board is now mandated to consider. Sirhan was considered a youthful offender under California law, as is anybody who commits a crime under the age of 26. In previous parole hearings, the board ruled that Sirhan’s unstable childhood meant he was still a risk to society. The new law recognizes new neuroscience that shows human brains are still developing – particularly the prefrontal lobe, which is responsible for decision making, risk assessment and impulsivity control – until age 26.

“So that’s one new law that benefited Mr. Sirhan today,” Berry said. “And another new law that came into effect is the elderly prisoner consideration. The legislature also mandated that the parole board consider how long a prisoner has been in, their age and any age-related health issues that would also contribute to a diminished risk of future violence. So we just hammered in on all of those factors today: he was able to establish a lot of rehabilitation, he had a lot of people in support of his release. And we got it done. Hopefully it’s going to pass the board and the governor approves it, and there won’t be any more work to do.”

The hearing took place at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. Contrary to long-standing policy, a prosecutor was not there to argue against Sirhan’s release. Among the criminal justice reforms Gascón implemented upon taking office in December was the policy to send prosecutors to parole hearings to present arguments against granting inmates parole.

“The role of a prosecutor and their access to information ends at sentencing,” Alex Bastian, special adviser to Gascón, told the Washington Post, discussing the policy change. “The parole board’s sole purpose is to objectively determine whether someone is suitable for release. If someone is the same person that committed an atrocious crime, that person will correctly not be found suitable for release. One way or another, prosecutors will not be getting involved in this case. The parole board, however, has all the pertinent facts and evaluations at their disposal, including how someone has conducted themselves over the last few decades in prison.”

Kennedy Jr. said after the hearing that his father “would be really happy today. My father believed in compassion. The ideals of our justice system are the possibility of redemption and the importance of forgiveness. He didn’t believe the justice system was just about revenge.”

Harvard law scholar Laurence Tribe disagreed.

“I fail to see why Bobby Kennedy’s assassin should ever be released from prison,” he wrote on Twitter. “Even at 77, he could be a threat. And the enduring harm he inflicted was incalculable. But for his vicious act, the rest of U.S. history would’ve been different.”

 


Justin Chapman has been nominated for two Los Angeles Press Club awards, both for his story about Mad Mike Hughes in Alta Journal. The two categories are: (1) Hard News (One Day's Coverage of a Hard News Story), and (2) Obituaries/In Appreciation (Politics/Business/Arts Personalities), in Print/Online Outlets.

The awards ceremony will take place on October 16 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA.

Read Justin's award-nominated story here.

This is the second year Justin has been nominated for an LA Press Club award. The first year was in 2015 for his story about Joan Williams, Miss Crown City 1958 who was discriminated against by the city of Pasadena for her race and was denied her place on a float in the 1959 Rose Parade.


In season two of "Well Read," host and journalist Justin Chapman provides analysis on news, politics, arts, and culture and interviews special guests. Featuring segments by Senior Influencer Correspondent, @BradtheInfluencer, and Senior Toddler Correspondent, Sienna. Justin also provides recommendations for good reads in each episode.

In Episode Fifteen, Justin interviews HawaH Kasat, an author, artist, yoga instructor, community organizer, and founder and executive director of One Common Unity.

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