Daily News, Los Angeles
Los Angeles County prosecutors will be absent Friday for the first time from a parole hearing for Sirhan Bushara Sirhan — the man convicted of assassinating U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968.
That’s per orders from District Attorney George Gascón, who on his first day in office in December 2020 announced sweeping criminal justice reforms. Among them was a change to long-standing D.A.’s office policy that routinely sent prosecutors to parole hearings to argue against releasing inmates early.
Now, prosecutors are generally barred from attending those hearings, leaving the state’s parole board to weigh only the information they have on the inmate.
In Sirhan’s hearing, the D.A.’s office is not taking a stance either for or against his release.
“One way or another, prosecutors will not be getting involved in this case,” said Alex Bastian, a special advisor to Gascón.
In separate statement, Bastian said the D.A.’s office is “focused on ensuring that victims are provided trauma informed services.”
“The role of a prosecutor and their access to information ends at sentencing,” he said. “The parole board however has all the pertinent facts and evaluations at their disposal, including how someone has conducted themselves over the last few decades in prison.”
This will be the 16th hearing before the parole board for Sirhan, who is now 77. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 8:30 a.m. hearing at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego will be conducted by video.
Sirhan was convicted of fatally shooting Kennedy — a senator from New York and U.S. attorney general for his brother President John Kennedy’s administration, as well an icon in the Civil Rights movement — shortly after a speech he gave in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel following his victory in the California primary for the Democratic nomination for president on June 5, 1968.
Sirhan also shot and wounded five others, firing wildly as he was tackled to the ground. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1969. Changes in California law in 1975 resulted in Sirhan becoming eligible for parole.
An attorney representing members of the Kennedy family did not return a request for comment Thursday about Sirhan’s parole hearing and the absence of prosecutors.
Robert F. Kennedy is survived by his wife, Ethel, and their nine children. His death has been the subject of speculative theories, just like his brother’s 1963 assassination.
His son, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a prominent anti-vaccination proponent who has shared misinformation about vaccines, joined supporters of Sirhan in 2018 in questioning whether he was his father’s killer.
Another victim of the shooting, Paul Schrade, submitted a letter of support for Sirhan to the board for Friday’s hearing. He previously appeared at the most recent parole hearing for Sirhan in February advocating for his release. He believes that there was a second shooter who was never identified.
Sirhan was a Palestinian refugee from Israel who fled with this family to the U.S. in 1956. The family eventually settled in the Pasadena area.
He openly admitted to the killing during his 1969 trial. He has cited Robert Kennedy’s support of Israel during conflicts in the Middle East and with Palestinians as his motive for the assassination.
In previous parole hearings, he has expressed remorse for the murder.
“I have feelings of shame and inward guilt,” he said in a 1989 parole hearing. “It is really a haunting experience and I honestly feel the pain that (the Kennedy) family may have gone through.”
Angela Berry, an attorney with offices in Encino, took over representing Sirhan last year when she received a call from his brother, Munir Sirhan, who still lives in their family’s Pasadena home.
“I thought it was a crank call,” Berry said in an email. “The next day I got a call from an author friend of Munir’s, urging me to call Munir back. I was intrigued to learn that RFK Jr. and victim Paul Schrade supported Sirhan’s release, so I called RFK Jr. and after talking with him, I decided to take the case on pro bono.”
In her pre-hearing briefing, Berry does not contest Sirhan’s guilt. Rather, she cites his status as a youthful offender under California law: that his age at the time of the crime, 24, would have been a mitigating factor that a judge could have considered in sentencing him. She also notes at length Sirhan’s history of trauma from witnessing violence in the Middle East during his youth and at the hands of an abusive father.
Berry argues Sirhan, at his age, is unlikely to re-offend and has a clean disciplinary record.
“His incarceration over the last 53 years has caused him to not only mature chronologically, but emotionally and spiritually,” Berry wrote. “(He) is rehabilitated.”
Berry said if released, Sirhan would go live with his brother in Pasadena.
“He and Munir just want to live out their remaining years obscurely and privately,” Berry wrote.
Whether the absence of prosecutors means Sirhan stands a better chance of leaving prison is not clear, but opponents of Gascón’s say his reforms put public safety at risk.
Proponents of a recall campaign against Gascón, launched within months of his inauguration, have said his scrapping of the D.A.’s office traditional role in parole hearings was a betrayal of victims’ families, some who have expressed outrage at the change.
In a letter this month to California Attorney General Rob Bonta, former L.A. County D.A. Steve Cooley, 10 victims’ rights attorneys and a former LAPD detective excoriated Gascón. Cooley, who served as D.A. from 2000 to 2012, sent prosecutors to four of Sirhan’s parole hearings.
“Gascon’s policy denies representation of the People of the State of California,” Cooley and the others wrote in their letter. “Importantly, victims (usually next of kin of murdered victims or rape victims) are left to fend for themselves.”
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