US senator Robert F Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan has been granted parole.
The decision by a California Parole Board panel came after two of RFK’s sons went against several of their siblings’ wishes and supported releasing Sirhan, and prosecutors declined to argue he should be kept behind bars.
The decision was a major victory for the 77-year-old Sirhan, though it does not assure his release, with the state’s governor ultimately making the decision.
RFK was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 6 1968.
Douglas Kennedy told the board he was moved to tears by Sirhan’s remorse, and Robert F Kennedy Jr submitted a letter calling for Sirhan to be freed.
However, six of Mr Kennedy’s nine surviving children decried the parole board’s vote.
For 15 years, Robert F Kennedy’s assassin was denied parole by a California parole board that maintained Sirhan Sirhan did not show adequate remorse or understanding over the enormity of his crime.
On Friday, the two-person panel said he appeared to be a different man, even from his last hearing in 2016, and granted the 77-year-old prisoner parole.
The board found Sirhan no longer poses a threat to society, noting that he had enrolled in more than 20 programmes including anger management classes, Tai Chi and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We think that you have grown,” parole board commissioner Robert Barton said.
Douglas Kennedy was a toddler when his father was gunned down in 1968. He told the panel that he was moved to tears by Sirhan’s remorse and that the killer should be released if he is not a threat to others.
“I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr Sirhan face-to-face,” he said.
“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.”
Six of Mr Kennedy’s nine surviving children, however, said they were shocked by the vote. They urged state governor Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall election in California, to reverse the parole board’s decision and keep Sirhan behind bars.
“He took our father from our family and he took him from America,” the six siblings wrote in a statement late on Friday.
“We are in disbelief that this man would be recommended for release.”
The statement was signed by Joseph P Kennedy II, Courtney Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Christopher G Kennedy, Maxwell T Kennedy and Rory Kennedy.
But another sibling, Robert F Kennedy Jr, has spoken in favour of his release in the past and wrote in favour of paroling Sirhan. He said in the letter that he met him in prison and was moved by Sirhan, “who wept, clinching my hands, and asked for forgiveness”.
Mr Kennedy said in a letter submitted during the hearing to the board: “While nobody can speak definitively on behalf of my father, I firmly believe that based on his own consuming commitment to fairness and justice, that he would strongly encourage this board to release Mr Sirhan because of Sirhan’s impressive record of rehabilitation.”
Sirhan smiled, thanked the board and gave a thumbs-up after the decision to grant parole was announced.
It was a major victory in his 16th attempt at parole after he had served 53 years.
The ruling will be reviewed over the next 120 days by the 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.
If Sirhan is freed, he must live in a transitional home for six months, enrol in an alcohol abuse programme and undergo therapy.
Robert F Kennedy was a US senator from New York and the brother of US president John F Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963.
RFK was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination when he was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after delivering a victory speech in the pivotal California primary in June 1968.
Five others were wounded.
Sirhan, who insists he does not remember the shooting and had been drinking alcohol just beforehand, was convicted of first-degree murder.
He 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.
Some of Kennedy’s children and others have called for a reinvestigation of the killing, believing there was a second shooter who got away.
On Friday, Sirhan again said he did not recall the killing, but made multiple attempts to show he takes responsibility for the harm he caused.
“Senator Kennedy was the hope of the world … and I harmed all of them and it pains me to experience that, the knowledge for such a horrible deed, if I did in fact do that,” said Sirhan, appearing on camera from a San Diego County prison at the virtual proceeding.
The board found that despite the magnitude of the crime, Sirhan was not likely to reoffend and did not pose an unreasonable threat to public safety.