The American criminal justice system is in dire need of reform, and that includes urgently needed changes in the clemency process that address mass incarceration, sentencing inequities, and racial inequality while prioritizing rehabilitation and reentry. Clemency is not only a powerful tool to correct injustices, but it can also advance the important values of humanitarianism and mercy.
But the justice system must also ensure that the worst offenders pay the most severe penalty for their crimes. By his own admission, Sirhan Sirhan gunned down Robert F. Kennedy — a sitting senator, presidential candidate, brother of an assassinated president, and one of the highest-profile political figures in America — because he was angered by Kennedy’s support of Israel.
Releasing a political assassin who traumatized the American people, violently upended the political process, and altered the course of history would serve no just cause — particularly at a time when our nation’s democracy has been revealed to be held together by the most delicate of fibers. Sirhan must never walk free, and the vote by two members of the California parole board to release him was wrong. The full board, which has 120 days to render a final decision, must reject that move. If it doesn’t, Governor Gavin Newsom must correct such a grievous error.
Parole decisions are, and should be, discretionary. Under California law, the board must consider a host of factors. They include, but aren’t limited to, the crime’s nature and motivation, the inmate’s expression of remorse, behavior while incarcerated, and psychological factors. Victims are allowed to make statements at parole hearings about the impact the crime has had on them and their views about the inmate’s potential release.
One of the most headline-grabbing aspects of Sirhan’s bid for release is the split it has caused among Kennedy’s children. Robert Kennedy Jr., who despite Sirhan’s admission of guilt has long stated a belief in his innocence, wrote a letter in support of his release, according to the Associated Press’s Julie Watson. (Watson, in a move of astounding lack of transparency on the state’s part, was the only reporter permitted to observe and give an account of the hearing.) Robert Kennedy Jr. later expressed relief about the parole recommendation, telling Watson that his father believed in the “possibility of redemption and the importance of forgiveness.”
That may be true, and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s belief may be sincere, but his reasoning actually undermines his argument: Neither redemption nor forgiveness can be given to an innocent inmate. And acceptance of responsibility, rehabilitation, and remorse are baseline requirements for parole in just about any jurisdiction, California included.
In a statement condemning the parole vote, former US representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, joined by siblings Courtney, Kerry, Chris, Maxwell, and Rory, expressed “disbelief that this man would be recommended for release.”
The former congressman stressed in a statement to the Globe what is perhaps the strongest factor against paroling Sirhan. “Let there be no mistake, the prisoner’s release will be celebrated by those who believe that political disagreements can be solved by a gun,” Kennedy said.
There is no amount of anger management classes, Tai Chi, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — all parts of Sirhan’s prison life considered by the parole board — that changes that fact.
Neither does the fact that, unlike in Sirhan’s 15 other denied parole requests, prosecutors opted not to oppose this one. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office recently prohibited prosecutors from opposing parole for any inmate with a life sentence, a move aimed at eliminating conflicts of interest. That is an important reform to the system, not evidence of Sirhan’s fitness for release.
Sirhan has already received mercy, when his death sentence was commuted to life in 1972 after California briefly outlawed capital punishment — an act supported by both Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, and brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, as Joe Kennedy noted in his statement. That, too, was the right decision, since state-sponsored killings should serve no place in a just criminal system, regardless of the severity of the crime.
But there is a small class of offenders whose release would serve to erode our faith in the criminal justice system, undermine our nation’s principles, and inflict further trauma on the American people. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a member of that club. As is Sirhan.