Is it time for Sirhan Sirhan to be released from prison? He served 53 years in prison for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy.
Consider the following thinking experiment: What if, on June 5, 1968, instead of going to the Ambassador Hotel and killing Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the brain, Sirhan Sirhan had gone to the nearby McDonald's and shot the guy behind the grill?
Is he still incarcerated five decades later?
That dilemma arises because Sirhan, who is 77 years old and has served 53 years in jail, is scheduled to appear before a California parole board panel on Friday.
He has already been considered for parole – 15 times, in fact. And he has been rejected on every occasion. The last time, in 2016, the panel determined that he lacked sufficient remorse.
I am unable to read the parole commissioners' thinking. However, I can't help but wonder — call me cynical! — whether he was denied 15 times in part because he falls into a category of legendary criminals, such as Charles Manson and others, for whom the rest of us feel a special level of hostility. Sirhan's case, however, may have altered the trajectory of American history, given his victim was a presidential candidate.
When one of the commissioners revealed the panel's 2016 judgment, he admitted that Sirhan's crime "impacted the nation and, dare I say, the world." He referred to it as a "assault on the democratic system."
However, I am not convinced that the crime's notoriety or its national political ramifications should play such a big part in determining whether Sirhan is paroled.
The parole board, in my opinion, should attempt to assess whether Sirhan satisfies the standard criterion. Is he repentant? Is he a danger of reoffending or other forms of violence? Is his criminal record spotless?
However, if he fits the same conditions as any other first-degree killer, the board should recommend release notwithstanding the notoriety of his crime.
Why should California continue to retain a prisoner who has served more than 50 years, has been a model prisoner, and is highly unlikely to kill again — simply to keep him in eternal punishment at the expense of state taxpayers as he ages, requires more expensive healthcare, and eventually dies?
To be clear, the panel meeting on Friday will not make the ultimate judgment. It is likely to rule only on Sirhan's suitability for release. If it decides that he is, the recommendation will be examined by the full parole board and then forwarded to the governor for approval, reversal, or one of several other possible outcomes. Naturally, the governor will be very conscious of the political fallout that could result from releasing such a notorious prisoner.
However, Sirhan looks to meet a few of the standard reasons for release. According to his lawyer, Angela Berry, psychological risk evaluations have repeatedly determined that he poses a low danger of violence. Since 1972, he has not been charged with any severe violations of prison regulations.
Berry asserts that the parole panel's mission is straightforward: to decide whether convicts have been sufficiently rehabilitated to return to society safely. Not to re-litigate the case and, honestly, not to determine whether the crime was so heinous or consequential that the prisoner should languish in prison till death.
Furthermore, I'm not sure why a murder that garners national attention is worse than one that goes unnoticed or forgotten. Nor is it instantly evident that assassinating a US senator warrants a longer penalty than, say, murdering a small child.
Sirhan's retrial is attracting more attention in part because no prosecutors will appear before the board for the first time. Historically, district attorneys have sought to ensure that criminals charged by their offices are not freed too lightly or prematurely. However, George Gascón, Los Angeles's new progressive district attorney, has stated that he will not send lawyers to parole hearings to do so.
On balance, that is the correct choice. Prosecutors' jobs should not be to ensure that criminals prosecuted 50 years ago die in prison. Their role is to seek justice on behalf of the state and all of its citizens until sentence. They have limited information on an inmate's whereabouts following the trial.
To be clear, I am not a believer in prison abolition. Criminals should be punished for their transgressions and isolated from society when they pose a threat.
However, I believe in mercy and rehabilitation as well.
Is Sirhan, 77, the same person as the 24-year-old man who committed the crime? Recent Supreme Court judgments and California legislation have found that an offender's youth at the time of the offense should be given "considerable weight" in parole determinations. Another California statute compels parole decisions to give “special consideration” to criminals over the age of 50 since their “age, time served, and diminished physical condition” may have reduced their risk of future violence. The parole board should take those factors into account.
Jen Abreu, who runs the group Redemption Row California, is one of the women expected to speak before the parole board. She examined a group of other inmates convicted of first-degree murder — many of whom were gang members with whom she worked — who were given release despite serving less time than Sirhan and being penalized for far more significant disciplinary breaches. Several of them stabbed other prisoners or assaulted guards yet were nonetheless released. Sirhan, according to Abreu, is one of the state's longest-serving inmates.
Public safety, remorse, mercy, and pragmatism should all be considered while deciding whether or not to release Sirhan. Large-scale headlines and political fallout should not be allowed.