There are moments so tragic they are seared in memory. The 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy — on whom so many of us had pinned so many youthful hopes — was one of them. Coming just two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., it was a second punch to the gut and a sign the world had truly gone mad.
No, I’ll never forget, and I’ll never forgive his assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, for robbing my generation of a hero, for taking away all the might-have-beens — and for robbing a family of a husband and a father.
But parole — as recently recommended by California parole commissioners for Sirhan — isn’t about forgiveness. It isn’t a pardon; it doesn’t erase the record.
And heaven help us if it ever becomes about politics.
Parole is and always has been based on rehabilitation, the expression of remorse, and the likelihood of an inmate to re-offend. It shouldn’t matter if the victim was a Kennedy or a Smith or a Jones. It shouldn’t matter whether my dreams were shattered, a nation was deprived of a future leader, and a passel of kids were left fatherless.
What should matter is whether justice is being served, whether this particular prisoner is being treated any differently than the guy in the next cell with the same record of spotless behavior, the same likelihood not to pose a future risk to public safety.
Sirhan was 24 at the time he shot then-presidential contender Robert Kennedy — a moment captured on live television as the world and at least one of his sons watched. Sirhan claims not to remember much of that night and concedes that he had been drinking. His defense team made the case that he was mentally ill at the time of the shooting, and experts brought in by the prosecution agreed.
But he went to trial nevertheless, was found guilty of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death in 1969. When California eliminated the death penalty in 1972, he was re-sentenced to life in prison. However, as Parole Board Commissioner Robert Barton said at Sirhan’s hearing, “If you were sentenced to life without parole that would be a different matter, but you were sent to life with parole.”
In fact, Sirhan has been eligible for parole since 1975. He’s now 77 and has been behind bars for 53 years; this was his 16th parole hearing.
“Over half a century has passed,” Sirhan told the two parole commissioners, “and that young, impulsive kid I was does not exist anymore. . . . 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.”
His lawyer noted in her brief that Sirhan has had no disciplinary violations since 1972. In fact, three correction officers filed letters of support on his behalf, and Barton said, “We saw the improvement that you’ve made,” noting Sirhan has enrolled in more than 20 prison programs.
The parole board is also required, under a 2018 law, to take into account that Sirhan was a youthful offender at the time of sentencing, had suffered childhood trauma as a Christian Palestinian refugee, and that he now qualifies for “elderly parole,” having served more than 20 years and being well over the required age of 50.
“You have my pledge. I will always look to safety and peace and nonviolence,” Sirhan told the hearing officers.
Our nation’s corrections system is based on the concept that rehabilitation works and remorse counts for something. Parole is held out as the potential reward for doing the right thing. If it is denied for political reasons, it becomes meaningless.
The decision by the two-member panel to grant Sirhan parole now goes to the full parole board, and if they support the decision, the matter ultimately goes to Governor Gavin Newsom.
No one is asking any of those officials to forgive Sirhan’s crime and certainly not to forget the price this nation paid for it. But none of that should matter. For the parole board, Sirhan Sirhan should be just another prisoner who played by the rules — no more, but no less.
Rachelle G. Cohen is a Globe opinion writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.