Parole board members have refused to free Robert F Kennedy’s convicted assassin after ruling that he had not shown enough remorse and did not understand the severity of a crime that was mourned by a nation four decades ago.
Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian from Jordan who is now 66, spoke at length yesterday and expressed sorrow, but said he did not remember shooting Kennedy or five other victims on June 5, 1968 in the crowded kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Kennedy stood moments after claiming victory in the California presidential primary.
“Every day of my life, I have great remorse and deep regret,” he told a panel of two parole board commissioners at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, California.
The panel chairman, Mike Prizmich, and the deputy commissioner, Randy Kevorkian, told Sirhan he must seek further self-help courses, come to terms with the shooting and show evidence of his improvement by his next parole hearing, which will be in five years.
“The magnitude of this crime is one that a nation mourned over, and from that day on, politicians changed the way they interacted with people,” Mr Prizmich said.
He noted the impact on the Kennedy family, which had endured another tragedy five years before with the killing of Robert Kennedy’s brother, president John F Kennedy.
At that point, Sirhan interjected: “That’s not my responsibility.”
The chairman cut him off: “In this way, interrupting me indicates a lack of control of yourself.”
Sirhan, with greying hair and a missing front tooth, appeared cheerful as he entered the hearing room. He was talkative, bidding the commissioners “good afternoon” – a departure from his previous 12 parole hearings, during which he rarely spoke and sometimes did not even appear.
Sirhan emphasised he was a practising Christian who attends services every Sunday. He said he was put in solitary confinement at the prison after he became a target of hatred following the September 11 attacks. Fellow inmates thought he was a Muslim, he said.
He pleaded with the panel to give him a release date, saying he was willing to accept the possibility of deportation to his native Jordan. He said no one in his family was involved in politics and he suggested he would not be either if he was released.
“I want to live, get lost in the woodwork and live out my life with my community,” he said.
Sirhan's attorney, William Pepper, has said he believed a second gunman shot Kennedy. He has also suggested Sirhan was brainwashed.
Mr Pepper told the panel he took on Sirhan’s case after his former lawyer died, because he became convinced that Sirhan did not fire the shot that killed Kennedy.
Mr Prizmich asked why, during his trial, Sirhan admitted to the crime. “He was told by everyone around him he was guilty,” said Mr Pepper. “Even his lawyers said he was guilty and said it was best to have his life saved.”
Mr Pepper said he arranged for a Harvard psychologist, Daniel Brown, to hypnotise Sirhan and conduct extensive interviews for the past three years. He said Mr Brown found Sirhan has amnesia, not just about the Kennedy shooting but about other segments of his life.
He noted that Mr Brown and a prison psychologist concluded that Sirhan was rated a low risk of violent behaviour in the future.
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney David Dahle disagreed: “We believe Sirhan Sirhan released would still pose a substantial danger to the public.” He said Sirhan has an anger problem and listed incidents of anger dating back to the 1970s.
Mr Dahle suggested that, although the crime was not supposed to be retried at the hearing, the killing of a presidential candidate during a primary was part of the darkest chapter of Los Angeles County history.
“It was the killing of the father of 11 and a member of the family that had five years earlier suffered another assassination,” he said.
“Standing on its own, it’s sufficient to find him unsuitable for parole,” Mr Dahle added.
Mr Prizmich said he was not impressed with Sirhan blaming others for his problems.
“You have made statements that someone set you up, the CIA set you up, the DA set you up. Everything that occurred in a negative way to you, you say it was someone else’s fault. We believe you minimise your conduct.”
Sirhan was originally sentenced to death over objections by Kennedy family members who said they wanted no more killing. The sentence was commuted to life in prison when the US Supreme Court briefly outlawed the death penalty in 1972.