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California may parole Robert Kennedy's assassin. Liberals aren't happy.

If Democrats don't think Robert Kennedy’s assassin deserves parole, do they really support criminal justice reform?
Image: Attorney Luke McKissack with defendant Sirhan Sirhan.
Attorney Luke McKissack with defendant Sirhan Sirhan.Bettmann / Getty Images

Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of murdering Robert F. Kennedy 53 years ago, has been recommended for release by the California Board of Parole Hearings. But, in a misguided effort that serves to reinforce the harsh practices that led to our incarceration explosion, some Democrats are fighting against the 77-year-old’s release. In doing so, they’re helping fuel the tough-on-crime rhetoric most often voiced these days by Republicans.

“I think that wound is just so strong for people."

Sirhan was originally sentenced to death for murdering the presidential candidate and former attorney general as he campaigned in Los Angeles, but in 1972 his sentence was commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Sirhan has been denied parole 15 times — most recently in 2016. But on Aug. 27, the California parole board recommended his release. After that recommendation, we quickly were reminded that the assassination from 53 years ago remains a present and painful memory to many Americans. It also became clear that some Democrats and progressives are willing to make exceptions to the criminal justice reforms they’ve claimed to support.

“I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in people’s minds,” Sirhan’s lawyer, Angela Berry, told me after the parole board’s recommendation. “I think that wound is just so strong for people. They just can’t see that the board followed the law.”

That “they” includes opportunistic, “tough on crime” conservatives — but also liberal and progressive Democrats.

“The news of Sirhan’s potential release hit me hard this weekend,” filmmaker Michael Moore wrote. “No, this assassin must not be set free.”

Few have voiced their opposition as loudly as Harvard Law School Professor Emeritus Laurence Tribe. A longtime prominent liberal voice, Tribe has been on a nonstop campaign to stop Sirhan’s parole. Before the parole panel even met — with no apparent investigation, let alone evidence — Tribe, referring to Sirhan, wrote on Twitter, “Even at 77, he could be a threat.”

The day the panel recommended parole, Tribe tweeted, “The plea by two of RFK’s sons to release Sirhan Sirhan should count for nothing. RFK’s assassination was a crime against the people of California and America, not just against the Kennedy family. Justice and the safety of potential future victims aren’t theirs to give away.”

Then when Kennedy’s other children issued a statement in opposition to parole, Tribe tweeted in all caps: “Governor [Gavin] Newsom: PLEASE LISTEN TO THESE SIX CHILDREN OF BOBBY KENNEDY.”

Obviously, Kennedy’s family is divided about what should happen to the 77-year-old man who was in his mid-20s when he was convicted of murdering their father. The six opposed to Sirhan’s release said they were “devastated” by the news of the board’s recommendation and said it’s difficult for them to speak about their father’s murder publicly. “Sirhan Sirhan,” they said, “committed a crime against our nation and its people.”

Kennedy’s family is divided about what should happen to the 77-year-old man.

Berry not only acknowledged this process “is obviously re-wounding the Kennedys,” but she also acknowledged what a difficult decision it was for her to take Sirhan’s case. Ultimately, “I’m a defense attorney,” she said. “He didn’t get life without the possibility of parole. He wasn’t convicted of a political assassination; he was convicted under [California’s murder statute].”

Sirhan has been eligible for parole for several decades. “The law presumes release unless the person poses a current unreasonable risk to the public,” Berry said. “There wasn’t one iota of evidence to suggest this man is still dangerous.”

The documents Sirhan submitted to the parole board included evidence from the state’s own experts that Sirhan “represents a Low risk for violence” and noted that his current age qualifies him for “elderly prisoner consideration” and the age at which he committed his crime means he should be treated as a “youthful offender.”

Notably, California’s elderly parole consideration law was amended this year to reduce the age at which the parole board should give “special consideration” to the impact of age on the individual’s “risk for future violence.” As Sirhan’s pre-hearing submission explained, “Now, a prisoner 50 or older who has served 20 years of continuous incarceration on his current sentence is eligible.”

Our system has become extremely carceral, but in 1972, when Sirhan was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, the idea that someone would serve more than 50 years in prison was way outside the norm. As his submission to the parole board noted, “The proscribed punishment for first degree murder in 1968 was life with parole eligibility after 7 years.”

Throughout the country, we've not only increased sentences exponentially since then, but we've also decreased the use and availability of parole and clemency and deemed more activities criminal.

Democratic opposition to letting California’s parole system work as intended is a problem for a party that claims to support criminal justice reform. Reformers in both parties have set goals to end over-sentencing, expand the use of clemency and parole and end overcriminalization. But when Tribe, and even the Kennedys, speak in opposition to Sirhan’s parole, opponents of reform hear their “tough on crime” refrains being justified.

“While I empathize and agree with the Kennedy family, their silence as other heinous vile criminals are released is hypocritical at best,” New York Assemblyman Mike Lawler, a Republican from Rockland County, wrote on Twitter. “Use your platform to speak out for other families who have had to endure these type of horrific decisions by parole boards across America.”

The longer you look at it, Democrats’ opposition to Sirhan’s release looks less and less different from the Republicans’ “tough on crime” stance.

A week earlier, Lawler called ex-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo a sociopath for granting clemency to David Gilbert, the 76-year-old former Weather Underground member in prison for his part in a robbery of an armored car that left two police officers and a guard dead. Gilbert will now be eligible for parole this fall, after he will have served 40 years in prison.

Sure, if you’re a lawyer wanting to find a way to distinguish the cases, you can. But the longer you look at it, Democrats’ opposition to Sirhan’s release looks less and less different from the Republicans’ “tough on crime” stance.

“There’s a presumption for release. Denial is the exception,” Berry said of the California parole rules applicable to Sirhan’s case. “We can’t say that everybody deserves a second chance but Sirhan Sirhan.”

After initially arguing against Sirhan’s release, Moore wrote that his sister, a public defender, persuaded him to think more deeply about his position.

“If the Governor decides to let him go, I will try to find my peace with that,” Moore wrote. “While offering my love to Kennedy’s family. And recommitting myself to the efforts of bringing about a more just system.”

A more just system means so many things, but, specifically here, it means letting parole work, and it means understanding that turning prisons into nursing homes for people who were practically children when they committed crimes is not only a financial mistake, it misunderstands our knowledge that people change and that older people overwhelmingly do not commit crimes.

“It’s the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” Berry said. “It’s not called the Department of Lock ’Em Up and Throw Away the Key.”