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Robert F. Kennedy’s Assassin Denied Parole

Clare Fitzgerald
1. Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty Images 2. Keystone / Getty Images

The man convicted of killing Robert F. Kennedy at a Los Angeles hotel in 1968 has once again been denied parole, following a decision by California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Senator Robert Kennedy speaking

1968: Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally. (Photo Credit: Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

Newsom’s decision was announced on January 13, 2022 and goes against the recommendation of a two-person state parole panel, which stated in August 2021 that Sirhan Sirhan should be paroled. Their recommendation was partially influenced by two of Robert F. Kennedy’s children, who had advocated for Sirhan’s release.

Sirhan has been in prison since the shooting at the Ambassador Hotel, which occurred the day following Kennedy’s victory in California’s Democratic Presidential Primary. At the time, he was considered a leading candidate for the presidency. 

Following his assassination, Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey secured the Democratic nomination, but lost the national election to Richard Nixon.

Sirhan B. Sirhan (R) and his attorney Russell E. Parson

Sirhan B. Sirhan (R) and his attorney Russell E. Parsons are photographed as they leave the courtroom following the hearing, postponed until July 19th when it was learned a court appointed psychiatrist refused to examine the defendant. Sirhan is accused of the murder of Robert. F. Kennedy. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

Writing in a statement, Newsom said:

“Mr. Sirhan’s assassination of Senator Kennedy is among the most notorious crimes in American history. After decades in prison, he 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.”

He also made mention of the political climate at the time, following the earlier assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“[It] upended the 1968 presidential election, leaving millions in the United States and beyond mourning the promise of his candidacy. Mr. Sirhan killed Senator Kennedy during a dark season of political assassinations, just nine weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder and four and a half years after the murder of Senator Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy.”

Sen. Robert Francis Kennedy gives victory sign

Sen. Robert Francis Kennedy (D- N.Y.), his wife Ethel standing behind him, gives victory sign to huge crowd at the Ambassador Hotel June 5th, prior to making victory speech after winning the California primary. A few minutes later, the 42 year old Senator was brought down by an assassin’s bullets upon entering a hotel corridor. The accused assassin, 24 year old Jordanian refugee Sirhan Bisara Sirhan, was captured immediately by members of Sen Kennedy’s staff and turned over to Los Angeles authorities. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

Sirhan has been in prison since the shooting, which also wounded five others. A Palestinian immigrant, he’d written a manifesto calling for Kennedy’s death. At the time, he claimed he couldn’t remember the shooting, due to his level of intoxication.

He was initially sentenced to death for the crime, but following California’s temporary outlawing of capital punishment in 1972, was commuted to life in prison. In 1973, terrorists in Sudan took 10 people hostages at the US Embassy, demanding the release of Sirhan and a number of other prisoners. When their demands weren’t met, three diplomats were killed.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy getting an enthusiastic reception

Senator Robert F. Kennedy got his most enthusiastic reception yet in his Indiana presidential primary campaign when he visited Indiana University. He was mobbed by thousands of students on the streets, while another 2,000 were jammed into an auditorium to hear him deliver an address on foreign policy. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

During a virtual parole hearing in August 2021, Sirhan expressed remorse for what he’d done and stated he’d since recommitted to a life of peace:

“Senator 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, if I did, in fact, do that. I’m still responsible for being there and probably causing this whole incident, through my own gun or other guns.”

This did little to quell the anger of Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, and six of his children, who wrote in September that “our family and our country suffered an unspeakable loss due to the inhumanity of one man… He should not have the opportunity to terrorize again.”

Douglas and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. were the only ones to advocate for Sirhan’s release, saying he is “a human being worthy of compassion and love.”

Sirhan Sirhan

Soledad, California: Sirhan Sirhan, convicted killer of Senator Robert Kennedy, pleads his case before the parole board 6/15. Last year the board rescinded a Sept. 1, 1984 parole date. Photo shows a headshot of Sirhan Sirhan during the hearing. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

Newsom added in his statement that he idolized Kennedy. On his desk sits a photograph of Kennedy with his father, appellate court Judge WIlliam Newsom. Months after assuming office, he lined the hallways of the Governor’s Office with photographs of those mourners who’d gathered to watch Kennedy’s funeral train as it traveled from New York to Washington, D.C.

This is not the first time the California governor has gone against the recommendation of the state’s parole board. In 2020, he denied the release of Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houton.

Pallbearers carrying the casket

Pallbearers (including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., John Glenn, Douglas Dillon, LeMoyne Billings, Lord Harlech, James Whittaker, Steven Smith, David Hackett’ Robert S. McNamara and Rafer Johnson) carry the coffin of Senator Robert Kennedy to the grave site at Arlington National Cemetery on June 9, 1968 in Arlington County, Virginia. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

This is the 15th time Sirhan has been denied parole. He will be scheduled for a new hearing no later than February 2023.