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Ethel Kennedy, widow of RFK, says Sirhan Sirhan should not be paroled

Ethel Kennedy, widow of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, has lent her voice to the controversy swirling over the possible parole of her husband’s assassin, Sirhan B. Sirhan, which has split some of the couple’s nine living children.

Kennedy, 93, said Sirhan should not be released from prison, despite a recent recommendation of two California Parole Board officials that the notorious assassin should go free.

“Bobby believed we should work to ‘tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world,’” Ethel Kennedy said in the two-paragraph, typewritten statement released Tuesday on Twitter by her daughter, Kerry Kennedy. “He wanted to end the war in Vietnam and bring people together to build a better, stronger country. More than anything, he wanted to be a good father and loving husband.”

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Ethel Kennedy added that her family and the nation “suffered an unspeakable loss due to the inhumanity of one man. We believe in the gentleness that spared his life, but in taming his act of violence, he should not have the opportunity to terrorize again.”

She concluded her statement with a handwritten notation that said “He should not be paroled,” capped with her handwritten signature.

Kennedy’s pointed statement is rare for a woman who has said little publicly about the death of her husband more than 53 years ago during his 1968 campaign for president.

A source close to the family said the matriarch has rarely, if ever, publicly commented on her husband’s death.

Historians said Ethel Kennedy’s statement adds a powerful voice to the parole question.

Laurence Leamer, author of “The Kennedy Women” and two other books on the family, called Ethel Kennedy’s statement “an act of immense courage.”

“I had tears in my eyes when I read it, that she would do that,” Leamer said in an interview. “Her family is broken in two over this.”

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Ethel and Robert Kennedy had 11 children, nine of whom are living. In days after the parole board’s recommendation, six of the children issued a joint statement saying they would fight the possible parole “every step of the way.” Two others, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Douglas Kennedy, who attended the virtual parole hearing, said they supported parole.

“I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr. Sirhan face to face,” Douglas Kennedy said during last month’s virtual parole panel meeting, according to the Associated Press. “I’ve lived my life both in fear of him and his name in one way or another. And I am grateful today to see him as a human being worthy of compassion and love.”

Leamer said he was surprised by Ethel Kennedy’s public statement, but he also said it reflects the highest ideals espoused by her late husband.

“At times, you must speak out the truth, and that’s what her husband did, and that’s what she admired in her husband,” he said. “That was the best of him.”

Thomas Whalen, a professor of social sciences at Boston University, said the family members’ differing views reflect the strong emotions many Americans may feel about RFK’s assassination.

“What’s going on in the family here is probably the debate raging on among Americans who remember that particular era,” said Whalen, the author of a book on President John F. Kennedy.

Ethel Kennedy’s statement was the latest reaction from the storied political clan in the wake of the recommendation last month by two officials on the 18-member parole board. Their recommendation doesn’t mean Sirhan will be paroled imminently, or ever.

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In one especially pointed statement last month, former Congressmen Joseph P. Kennedy II, the eldest of Ethel and Robert Kennedy’s sons, who represented Massachusetts’s 8th Congressional District, made a direct appeal to the full parole board, and if necessary California Governor Gavin Newsom, to keep Sirhan behind bars.

“Two commissioners of the 18-member California Parole Board made a grievous error last Friday in recommending the release of the man who murdered my father,” Joseph Kennedy said in his statement. “I understand that there are differing views about ending the sentence of this killer, including within my own family. But emotions and opinions do not change facts or history.”

Joseph Kennedy joined five siblings in a prior statement condemning the recommendation to free the assassin who gunned down Robert F. Kennedy after midnight on June 5, 1968, in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, when the New York senator was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Kennedy was shot as he walked through the hotel’s pantry following a victory speech after he won the Democratic primary in California.

He died the next day.

Former Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, the son of Joseph Kennedy II, is firmly in the camp opposing parole for Sirhan.

Joseph Kennedy III, who represented the 4th Congressional District in Massachusetts from 2013 until January, said in a statement last week that while he believes “deeply in the possibility of parole in the American justice system,” he also feels “the man who murdered my grandfather does not deserve it.”

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Five other people around Robert Kennedy also were shot during the assassination, but they all survived. His death came fewer than five years after President John F. Kennedy, one of his brothers, was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.

Sirhan, 77, is serving a life sentence at a California state prison. He has previously been denied parole 15 times.

In 1972, Sirhan’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison after California abolished the death penalty.

The decision by the parole board panel is subject to a 120-day review by the board’s legal staff, during which the case may be referred to the full board for further evaluation before a final judgment is rendered.

Material from Globe wires services, the New York Times was used in this story. Kathy McCabe of the Globe Staff and correspondent Jeremy C. Fox also contributed.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.