Skip to content
Parole debate continues over Sirhan Sirhan and RFK’s murder

Carol Germain lives on a quiet, tree-lined street in Pasadena, a few homes from the brother of Robert F. Kennedy’s murderer.

For 30 years, she watched TV crews march through the middle class neighborhood, where Munir Sirhan’s fenced home was featured on a real crime bus tour in Pasadena. At the brother’s request, she recently signed a letter supporting Sirhan Sirhan’s release.

“He’s 77,” she says. “He probably just wants to come and sit in the garden.”

But Germain understands the whirlwind of emotions surrounding the decision by California parole boards last month to recommend the release of the man convicted in one of the most infamous political assassinations in American history.

The recommendation has sparked intense debate in many corners – among the Kennedys, others who remember the murder, and even in the Pasadena neighborhood where the convicted killer hopes to settle down with his brother if released.

At the heart of the matter is the question of how much mercy should be shown to those who commit horrific crimes, including those who may have changed history. Kennedy was one of the main candidates for the presidency when he was shot on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles at the age of 42.

Sirhan’s testimony in a virtual hearing – in which he said he did not recall shooting the senator but expressed remorse “if I had actually done that” – was insufficient to defer. many members of the Kennedy family.

“Our family and our country have suffered indescribable loss due to the inhumanity of one man … he should not have the opportunity to terrorize again”, Ethel Kennedy, widow of the late senator, who was pregnant of their daughter when he was murdered, said in a statement.

Although six of his children said they were devastated by the commissioners’ decision, two expressed their support for Sirhan.

Douglas Kennedy told the panel that he had lived in fear of Sirhan, but now considered him “a human being worthy of compassion and love”. Robert Kennedy Jr., who echoed claims that a second gunman killed the senator, told the Los Angeles Times he was “glad the justice system showed a little humanity.”

Proponents of rehabilitation point to the small fraction of people who have committed crimes after being released from life sentences. A 2020 report from the California prison system indicates that only 2.3% of the 688 inmates released in the 2014-15 fiscal year were convicted of a new crime – the majority of them being misdemeanors.

“I don’t think one or even a series of behaviors defines the worth of a human being,” said Suzanne Neuhaus, who worked for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from 1988 to 2015 as an officer. parole officer and victim services specialist. . “Do people deserve an opportunity for change? Does a righteous system need mercy? “

Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant, was 24 when he gunned down the senator minutes after Kennedy’s speech the night he won the Democratic presidential primary in California. He later said he felt angered by Kennedy’s support for Israel.

He initially faced the death penalty, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after California briefly banned the death penalty in 1972.

Sirhan has always been denied parole. At a hearing in 2016, the commissioners ruled that he had not shown enough remorse or understanding as to why he had committed a crime that “clearly affected the potential of this nation”.

Sirhan’s supporters say he’s recently stepped up his efforts to change that.

Over the past year, they note, Sirhan has started working with several prisoners at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego who are trained to help other inmates resolve conflicts.

The group worked with Jen Abreu, a host of the Alternatives to Violence project, who said Sirhan spent hours each day working with group members on concepts such as empathy and remorse.

“They were talking about the material and how these giant abstract concepts applied to his life,” Abreu said, “really trying to get him to understand the nuances of this crime against life.”

During the hearing, Sirhan told the commissioners that he has participated in self-help programs and meditates regularly. As he started to cry when asked how he felt about the Middle East, he said he would try to pull away by “letting it drop out of my consciousness.” At 24, he said, he had wanted to be a “strong member of the community” and that is what he hoped to do for the rest of his life.

Commissioner Robert Barton said Sirhan had no criminal history prior to the murder and had not committed any serious violations for several decades. The board was required to give “great weight” to the fact that Sirhan was eligible for youth parole, which operates under the pretext that the parts of the human brain responsible for understanding the consequences are not. still fully developed, he said.

Although the commission took into account the political nature of the murder, Barton said, denial of parole requires evidence of dangerousness and an unreasonable risk to public safety.

But much of the opposition to Sirhan’s parole has been focused on his crime.

Heidi Rummel, co-director of USC’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, said the case is complicated by the fact that Sirhan’s sentence has been commuted from death to life imprisonment.

“The faction that says it is unfair to release him should argue with California’s sentencing laws,” she said. “This is not an argument with the parole board.”

Christopher Hawthorne, director of the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic at Loyola Marymount University, said the board cares about Sirhan’s remorse and that “the current thinking is that if he understands what made him feel sorry for him. leads to this [the crime], he also understands how to lead a legal life in the future.

But Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Criminal Justice Center at Stanford University, said the parole board had the discretion to determine whether Sirhan’s release would cause emotional harm and social distress even though he would never commit another crime.

The decision must still be reviewed by parole legal staff and can be blocked by Gov. Gavin Newsom, or whoever may replace him after the recall election.

Newsom has rejected council decisions in the past. In November, he quashed the parole of Charles Manson’s follower Leslie Van Houten, 72, who had spent about five decades in prison for the Leno and Rosemary LaBianca murders – the fourth time a governor had blocked his release.

In a letter to the parole board, a Cleveland resident described how, as a youth, he knocked on doors to get people to vote for Kennedy. The senator, he said, “was a person whom I loved and respected and in whom I had deep confidence that he would bring an early end to this unjust and immoral war in Vietnam.”

But Sirhan, he said, “has been punished beyond reasonable human achievement.” He urged the commissioners to allow Sirhan’s remaining time to live “to be peaceful”.

Most of Kennedy’s children disagree.

Maxwell Kennedy, who served as a prosecutor for several years and was just a toddler when his father was murdered, told The Times that “retributive justice is vital to my perception of what the justice system is.” believing that those who commit capital murder should not be eligible for parole.

“If you say you can kill a politician if you are willing to give 50 years of your life, we are setting a dangerous precedent for Americans and encouraging the dissolution of the rule of law,” he said.

In an editorial for the New York Times, Rory Kennedy wrote that she had never met her father – having been born six months after his death – and that the loss “had an impact beyond measure.” She wonders if Sirhan hasn’t already shown compassion when his death sentence was changed to life in prison.

“It is a noble notion, after all, the belief that everyone – everyone – deserves a chance for rehabilitation and, after having served enough time in prison, even parole, ”she said.

Sirhan’s parents and four of his five siblings are dead. Sirhan’s lawyer Angela Berry said it was possible Sirhan could be deported if released – claiming he held a Jordanian passport. But if not, he would like to return to his family home in Pasadena.

For more than a decade, the Sirhan family home has been a stopover in Pasadena Confidential, a bus tour of places associated with historical and obscure crimes. Richard Schave, who led the tours with his wife, said they were never comfortable with the police investigation into Kennedy’s death and chose to add Sirhan’s house as a stop in order to pose questions about LA history that “we don’t think we get looked at closely enough.

The reaction to his possible release has manifested in Pasadena via the Nextdoor app, with some residents saying they would be averse to living near a murderer.

But several who live on the street of Munir Sirhan said they would not be disturbed by Sirhan’s return, stressing their respect for his brother. A man, who declined to give his full name, said Munir had been “such a good neighbor”. He recalled how his own ball took place at the Ambassador Hotel where Kennedy was shot.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with that, to tell you the truth,” he said, standing on his porch holding a hummingbird feeder. “I understand it’s polarizing. It’s one of the things you fight for, like the Manson family.

Germain, Munir Sirhan’s neighbor, said that while she supports his release, she understands those who say her crime had too much of an impact – on the Kennedys and on history – to deserve to be released from prison.

“I would feel it 100% if it was my family,” she said. “I don’t think I could forgive anyone who murdered my father.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.