California Gov. Gavin Newsom has blocked the release from prison of Robert Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan, whose fatal shots half a century ago rocked America and redirected history.
The Democratic governor said he had determined that Sirhan posed too great a threat to public safety, citing Sirhan’s declining to accept responsibility for the crime or to renounce violence.
“Mr. Sirhan’s assassination of Senator Kennedy is among the most notorious crimes in American history,” Newsom said in a statement. “After decades in prison, he has failed to address the deficiencies that led him to assassinate Senator Kennedy. Mr. Sirhan lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the same types of dangerous decisions he made in the past.”
A parole panel last year recommended Sirhan’s liberation, more than half a century after he shot down Kennedy in Los Angeles during the Democrat’s presidential campaign in 1968. While parole board members pointed to Sirhan’s self-improvement and new laws that required them to consider his current health and his youth at the time of the crime, the decision was ultimately in Newsom’s hands.
Newsom’s decision carried both profound national implications and a wrenching personal dimension. The Democratic governor reveres Kennedy as a personal hero, keeping images of the former U.S. attorney general and presidential candidate in his office and his home.
The governor has acknowledged the case’s deep resonance for many people, saying he was inundated with messages from people both taking positions on Sirhan and reliving their memories of the turbulent era in which Kennedy was killed.
“This is very raw emotionally,” Newsom said last year, because it stirs up “memories of that time” that some people “may want to suppress, understandably.”
A parole panel’s recommendation last year that Sirhan be released after decades in prison split both the public and the Kennedy family. Two of Kennedy’s children backed Sirhan’s freedom while his wife and other former children strenuously opposed it.
“Our family and our country suffered an unspeakable loss due to the inhumanity of one man,” his widow Ethel Kennedy said last year. “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.”
Newsom telegraphed his inclination on Wednesday by noting most of Kennedy’s family felt differently than Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who supported Sirhan’s release.
“The overwhelming majority of the Shriver and Kennedy family members are opposed to Mr. Sirhan’s release,” Newsom said.
It is not uncommon for Newsom to override parole boards in murder cases. He has reversed decisions to release inmates more than 150 times since he became governor, including repeatedly declined to parole associates of former cult leader Charles Manson.