Should the convicted assassin of Robert F. Kennedy be paroled after 53 years in prison?
Should the man who shot and killed Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, walk free? That is the question the full California Parole Board is actively considering after a two-member panel declared him eligible for release on August 27. The final decision rests with California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has said he has not yet made a decision, but has been quoted noting that RFK was a big inspiration to him, adding: “I think that gives you a sense of where I might be leaning right now.”
Sirhan, who remains in jail, has been denied parole 15 times before. Even the nine surviving Kennedy children are split on the question: two believe it is time for him to be released, six adamantly do not, along with RFK’s widow, Ethel. The eldest, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has remained silent, finding it too emotionally difficult to discuss in public.
The whole debate summons a vivid memory for me, a haunting recollection of how I became the person to tell Sirhan Sirhan Sr. that his namesake son had been seized on the spot as the assassin. It is recounted in my newly-published memoir “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.”
On June 5th, 1968, I was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in Jerusalem, Israel. I had spent a lot of time with Robert Kennedy, covering his successful 1964 campaign for the United States Senate from New York, the only campaign he ever finished. I had been skeptical of him at first, but had come to admire him when it became clear that his commitment to civil rights and racial equality was the real deal. Needless to say, I was stunned by the news out of Los Angeles.
The next day I was attending a reception at the home of the American Ambassador to Israel when he drew me into his study, closed the door and told me that he had just learned that Sirhan Sirhan, Sr., the assassin’s father, lived in a small West Bank village near Jerusalem, barely an hour away.
Heading straight there, I arrived at the darkened Sirhan house about 10 p.m. A diminutive man in pajamas opened the door, clearly puzzled why a stranger had come at such a late hour. I explained who I was and, typical of Palestinian hospitality, Sirhan insisted that I sit at his kitchen table while he made coffee for both of us.
I asked Sirhan if he had heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. He said yes, it was terrible, that Kennedy could have been a great president. I asked if he had heard that the assassin was caught on the spot. Showing no emotion, he said yes, he had heard that on the radio. Had he heard the name of the captured assassin, I asked? No, he said, he had gone to bed and had no idea who it was.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I slid my reporter’s notebook across to Sirhan. “I understand you have five sons, is that right?” He said yes, he was proud of them. I asked him to write their names on my notebook. When he wrote the 4th name, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan Jr., I put my finger on that name and looked him in the eye. “That’s the name of the assassin they seized on the spot,” I said.
Stunned, Sirhan Sirhan Sr. stared at me. He could see I was serious. He gave me a hard, disbelieving look and shook his head. Then he erupted, first shouting that the assassin couldn’t be his son, Sirhan. “He was the best of the boys, the smartest, with the best grades,” he insisted, “I had the highest hopes for him.”
Then, his face darkened and his voice became angry. “If he did it,” he shouted, “he should hang.,” repeating that Kennedy could have been a great president.
Back and forth the father went, frantically switching from denial to accusation, back and forth for a half-hour, shaking his head in disbelief and then shouting that if his son was guilty, he should hang. He kept repeating that Sirhan Jr. was the brightest of his boys. “It couldn’t be, not Sirhan, not him,” he said repeatedly. “But if he did this dirty thing, he should pay for it.”
Finally, about midnight, I closed my notebook and returned to Jerusalem to write what little I had learned about the accused assassin’s family and background. I never saw Sirhan Sirhan Sr. again.
Postscript: the next day I interviewed the Palestinian headmaster of the school Sirhan had attended in the Old City. He confirmed that Sirhan Jr. had been a promising student with excellent grades. But, he said, the family was deeply troubled. The father had lost his job, blamed it on the Israelis, and took it out on his family, beating his wife and kids. The couple spit up; the wife took an offer from an evangelical Christian group and moved with the boys to the United States. That, said the headmaster, was why Sirhan Jr. was so bitter about Kennedy, whom he saw as a supporter of the Israelis, and so angry as Kennedy closed in on the presidential nomination.
So, should Sirhan Sirhan Jr. be released now, after more than half a century in prison? I would say no, but I am not impartial on the subject. That decision is up to the full Parole Board and, ultimately, Governor Newsom.