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Parole board votes to release Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin following his 16th parole hearing

Parole board votes to release Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin following his 16th parole hearing
A California parole board has voted to release Sirhan Sirhan – who killed US Senator Robert F. Kennedy – from prison after more than 50 years behind bars. The 77-year-old has said he shot the lawmaker over his support for Israel.

The two-person panel voted for Sirhan’s parole on Friday after he was denied during 15 previous hearings for showing little remorse. The decision will now be subject to a review by the full board that will last 120 days. Sirhan’s ultimate release will hinge on approval by California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Friday’s hearing was the first for Sirhan in which the prosecution did not show up to contest his case. The absence of prosecutors is in line with Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon’s new policy that prosecutors should not interfere with the parole process.

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Sirhan, who has long claimed that he does not remember the assassination, reportedly said at the hearing that he was no longer “that young impulsive kid” who was found guilty of Kennedy’s murder in 1968, vowing to “always look to safety and peace and non-violence.”

Sirhan was initially sentenced to death for the assassination of Kennedy, then a Democratic presidential hopeful, but was removed from death row following a 1972 decision by the California Supreme Court to outlaw capital punishment.

Kennedy was gunned down after midnight on June 5, 1968, shortly after he delivered a speech to supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, celebrating his victories in the key California and South Dakota primaries. The Democratic favorite was reportedly heading to the press room when he decided to take a short-cut through the kitchen, where he was shot. Five other people were injured in the incident.

Some media outlets at the time reported that Sirhan shouted, “Let me explain! I did it for my country,” as he was being wrestled down by one of Kennedy’s bodyguards. In a 1980 interview, Sirhan claimed that he was drunk and felt triggered by the senator’s support for Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, the first anniversary of which was celebrated by Jewish Americans days prior to the assassination. In his first television interview in 1989, Sirhan, who was born to an Arab family in Jerusalem, said that he felt betrayed by Kennedy after the senator backed a proposal to send US fighter jets to Israel “to obviously do harm to the Palestinians.”

While Sirhan was the sole person found guilty in Kennedy’s murder, the assassination gave rise to conspiracy theories after new evidence in the case emerged in 2004. A rediscovered recording of the shooting was studied by audio engineer Philip Van Praag, who argued that a total of 13 shots can be heard on the tape, while Sirhan’s revolver had fired only eight bullets. While some other sound experts dismissed the findings, deeming the additional shots to be a figment of Van Praag’s imagination, others seized on the report, believing it to be evidence that another gunman was involved.

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Kennedy’s son Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who spoke in favor of Sirhan’s parole before Friday’s hearing, has emerged as one of the most ardent supporters of the multiple gunmen theory. Paul Schrade, who was injured in the shooting but survived, later came out and claimed that while Sirhan shot him, another gunman shot Kennedy. 

At the previous parole hearing, Sirhan refused to confess to the murder, saying“legally speaking, I’m not guilty of anything.” The judge who rejected his appeal in 2015 ruled, however, that even if there was sufficient evidence for the jury to believe that there was more than one gunman at the scene, it would not have changed Sirhan’s sentence. “Even if the second shooter's bullet was the one that killed Senator Kennedy, petitioner would be liable as an aider and abettor,” the judge said.

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