California governor denies parole for Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of Robert Kennedy assassination

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has denied parole for Sirhan Sirhan, the 77-year-old who has spent more than 50 years in prison for the assassination of Robert F Kennedy.

Newsom has previously cited Kennedy as his “political hero” and wrote in his decision rejecting parole: “After decades in prison, [Sirhan] has failed to address the deficiencies that led him to assassinate Senator Kennedy. Mr Sirhan lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the same types of dangerous decisions he made in the past.”

Sirhan was approved for release by the parole board last year after two of Kennedy’s sons argued in favor of his release and prosecutors did not object. The board ruled that he was not a danger to public safety in the wake of new laws that required the panel to consider that he committed the offense at a young age.

Sirhan originally faced a death sentence for the 1968 killing of Kennedy, who was a Democratic US senator from New York and the former US attorney general. He was murdered at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after declaring victory in the California presidential primary. Sirhan repeatedly testified that he did not recall shooting Kennedy and injuring five others, but in his recent parole hearing, he said he took responsibility for the killing.

Douglas Kennedy, who was a toddler when his father was killed, attended last year’s hearing and urged for his release, saying he was moved to tears by Sirhan’s remorse, the AP reported: “I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr Sirhan face-to-face. 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.”

Robert F Kennedy Jr, another son, also recently urged that Newsom free Sirhan, noting that the state’s own psychiatrists deemed he was not a threat to society, and raising questions about the police’s original investigation. He met with Sirhan in 2018 and said he found him to be a “gentle, humble, kindhearted, frail and harmless”.

Paul Schrade, a victim who survived the shooting, has also argued for his release.

Six of his nine surviving children have argued against his release, including Rory Kennedy, who never met her father. Ethel Kennedy, Kennedy’s wife, also advocated that he remain in prison, saying, Sirhan “should not have the opportunity to terrorize again”.

Members of the Kennedy family released a statement on Thursday thanking the governor and saying they were “deeply relieved by his decision”.

Senator Robert F Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968.
Senator Robert F Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968. Photograph: Dick Strobel/AP

Newsom’s decision comes as the governor has faced increasing pressure to release incarcerated people during the pandemic, especially elderly people convicted of crimes when they were young. California has adopted a range of reforms meant to reduce mass incarceration and to give people serving long or indefinite sentences more opportunities to come home.

Sirhan, a Palestinian who immigrated from Jordan, was 24 when he killed Kennedy. Parole panels had previously denied his release more than a dozen times until last year’s decision. New laws meant that the panel had to consider that he was now elderly, and that he had endured childhood trauma stemming from conflicts in the Middle East.

At last year’s hearing, Sirhan argued he would not be a danger to society, saying, “I will always look to safety and peace and non-violence.”

Newsom, however, noted that the assassination was “among the most notorious crimes in American history” in announcing his rejection of parole on Thursday. The governor’s decision comes after prison psychologists have repeatedly rated him a low risk for future violence since 2010. The commissioners who granted him parole last year also noted that at age 77, he was “significantly incapacitated”.

In 2020, Newsom similarly rejected parole for Leslie Van Houten, who was convicted for her role in the high-profile Charles Manson killings, despite parole panels ruling four times that she should be freed after decades in prison.

The governor also announced pardons for 24 people, and commutations for 18 others currently incarcerated on Thursday. The list included a commutation for Rahsaan Thomas, a 51-year-old writerand co-host of the award-winning Ear Hustle podcast, which is recorded behind bars at San Quentin prison.

“People grow – you have to give us a chance,” Thomas told the Guardian in an interview last year, adding, “I think the person I am today would really be an asset out there.”

Eight of Newsom’s pardons were granted to people who would otherwise be at risk of deportation due to their convictions. The governor also pardoned people convicted of cannabis-related offenses. Some of the incarcerated people granted commutations, which reduce their sentences, were teenagers when they were convicted, including one who was 15 years old at the time of his arrest, the governor said.

Newsom is again facing pressure to reduce the prison population and issue more commutations and releases as Omicron wreaks havoc across the prison system, and as only 69% of prison workers report being fully vaccinated. At some prisons, fewer than half of staff are fully vaccinated.