Especially to a conservative who has spent considerable time as a federal prosecutor and later as a Republican political appointee to the leadership of the Department of Justice, the decision to grant parole to the assassin of Robert Kennedy — a former Attorney General, sitting United States Senator, and prominent candidate for the presidency — strains credulity.
While one might argue, sometimes with considerable force, for example with respect to the now-abandoned disparity that over-determined sentencing for those convicted of crack cocaine offenses, that there are inequities in our criminal justice system that should be remedied, I respectfully suggest that the life sentence of Sirhan Sirhan is not one of them.
The parole recommendation of two parole board members should be reversed by the full board or, ultimately, by the governor of California. Moreover, the issue is not one confined to the borders of California. It has national import because the murder of Sen. Kennedy, a viable presidential candidate, affected every citizen of the United States, and we should not abandon our recognition of that fact, especially by rewarding a murderer who, to this day, shows little reported remorse.
Various liberal opinion leaders who in their younger years were inspired by the idealism of Robert Kennedy and by his sympathy for their anti-Vietnam War sentiments, have — often in highly and understandably emotional terms — expressed their opposition to the parole decision. Though there is some apparent division among the views of his surviving family members, Sen. Kennedy’s eldest son has offered a compelling recollection of his family’s irremediable loss, and a well-reasoned condemnation of paroling Sirhan. So too has his widow. And there are those on the political right, some supporters of hardline criminal law enforcement, who not only criticize the decision to parole Sirhan, but note his good fortune in having avoided the death penalty, which had been suspended at the time of his sentencing.
I find that I am in none of these camps.
On June 5, 1968, when Kennedy was shot by Sirhan, I was not an antiwar advocate. Instead, I was a 22-year-old recent law school graduate, just commissioned to active duty as a United States Air Force officer assigned to counter-intelligence training in Washington, D.C. Nor was I a supporter of Robert Kennedy’s candidacy. Both then and now, I could be fairly categorized as a traditional political conservative, who — at least before the term of the autocratic recent ex-president — cast his votes for Republican candidates. And, though when I was an assistant United States attorney, I successfully prosecuted cases that led to substantial periods of incarceration for those convicted, I also was an early public supporter of the First Step Act that has resulted in meaningful federal sentencing reform. Thus, my opposition to paroling Sirhan Sirhan comes from a different world view.
There are some crimes that are acts not just against the immediate victims, but that rend the fabric of our society as a whole, and that are so indelibly consequential that when the society renders its verdict in a matter that expresses permanence, that expression should never be cancelled.
The life sentence of the assassin of a public official who had just won the California presidential primary and who represented the views of millions who sought social and political change, is just such an expression. It wasn’t just that Robert Kennedy was murdered, though that is bad enough: It is that at a time of considerable societal turmoil, the effective conduct of the orderly political processes that the rule of law demands was prevented by what any conservative would call a terrorist act and any liberal would call a hate crime. Both would be correct.
Sirhan killed Kennedy because, for his entire political life, Kennedy was a vocal supporter of Israel. Sirhan was attempting, by an act of violence, to alter governmental policy. By removing Kennedy from the political arena where he was a galvanic figure with respect not just to the Vietnam War, but to civil rights and social legislation as well, Sirhan intentionally altered the course of political debate in the nation as a whole. That affected every American citizen. For this, Sirhan, who, without reference to his murder victim, expressed no reported remorse, asserting just that he is sorry that he put himself “in jeopardy.”
A factor that seemingly influenced the California parole commissioners was the L.A. County district attorney’s decision to take no position with respect to Sirhan’s latest application. Reversing a policy that had been in effect for 15 consecutive hearings, the district attorney relied upon a special directive that is premised upon the assumption that most incarcerated people are members of groups that traditionally have been disadvantaged, and thus that most of them should not have been incarcerated for the terms imposed, if incarcerated at all.
Putting aside the fact that most of the victims of the people he is speaking about are members of the same disadvantaged groups and that most responsible leaders of their communities favor firm, fair law enforcement, the district attorney concludes that because — in his view — “the crime of conviction is of limited value in considering parole suitability years or decades later … the value of a prosecutor’s input in parole hearings is also limited.”
The district attorney is wrong, and the California board of parole and the governor, are in a position to do something about it by reversing the pending decision to grant parole.
The nature of some crimes is of great valence in considering the suitability of parole. Given the impact of the murder that Sirhan committed — both with respect to its immediate victim, Robert Kennedy, and to its societal victims, all of us — Sirhan should be denied parole.
Stuart M. Gerson is a Member of the Firm Epstein Becker Green and a founder of Checks and Balances, a conservative legal group. He previously served as a military counterintelligence officer, federal prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993 and then as Acting Attorney General of the United States.