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RFK's murder is a crime that
devastated America. Deny parole for Kennedy killer.
Sirhan Sirhan is eligible for parole
because of quirk in law. While I believe in second chances, California
governor must ensure justice is maintained for heinous crime.
James Alan Fox columnist
Published 2:00 p.m. ET Oct. 3, 2021 | Updated 6:59 p.m. ET Oct. 3, 2021
Correction: An earlier version of this column mischaracterized who ran
in the 1968 California Democratic primary.
recommendation by the two members of the California Parole Board to release
Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian militant who in 1968 assassinated Democratic
presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, incensed many Americans. As well
However, Sirhan's fate ultimately rests in the hands of Gov.
Gavin Newsom. Having survived last month's recall vote, Newsom should reward
his supporters by doing the right thing: denying Sirhan his freedom.
Sirhan's parole eligibility is the result of a statutory quirk of
history. Back in the 1960s, few states, particularly those with the death
penalty, had life without parole eligibility as a sentencing option. For
capital crimes, it was either life (with the possibility of parole) or
Sirhan was indeed condemned to die. But when capital punishment was
temporarily eliminated in the early 1970s, his sentence was changed and he
automatically became parole eligible. Today, every state but one (Alaska)
maintains life without parole as a sentencing option, regardless of whether
the death penalty is on the books.
Every few years, Sirhan has been
reviewed for parole release and denied. Most people expected that he would
eventually perish in prison just like Charles Manson, another of the
California cohort of condemned prisoners who automatically became parole
eligible in the 1970s. In certain cases, parole eligibility should be
nothing but an empty gesture.
Notwithstanding my position against
Sirhan's release, I am actually a strong proponent of the parole system. I
believe in second chances as incentive for rehabilitation and lament the
fact that the United States is far more punitive than other Western nations.
We need not keep convicted felons behind bars after they are no longer a
threat to society. Still, there remain a select few murderers whose crimes
are so reprehensible or have such a detrimental impact on our society that
life without parole should be the norm.
One of the core principles
of punishment keeping society safe from dangerous individuals does not
justify the lengthy sentences that are routinely handed out in American
courts. However, another key principle of punishment - expressing outrage
and demanding justice for especially heinous crimes - clearly suggests
keeping Sirhan locked up until he dies.
Much of the news reporting
on this matter has centered on disagreements among members of the Kennedy
clan about whether their relative's assassin should ever see the outside of
the prison walls. However, unlike most murder cases that primarily affect
those who lost a loved one, the impact and pain caused by Sirhan's crime
extended way beyond the Kennedy compound.
As a champion of liberal
causes, Kennedy was revered by a diverse coalition of working-class white
people, impoverished Black people and anti-war youth. Although a late
entrant into the presidential race, Kennedy's populist candidacy quickly
gained momentum, capped by his surprising victory in the California primary.
"When Sirhan Sirhan gunned down Bobby Kennedy half a century ago",
reflects Larry Tye, a Kennedy biographer, "it wasn't just a life that ended,
but a romantic vision for America that made RFK a rare optimist in an era
even more politically riven than ours today."
More than a million
Americans of all ages, races and social strata lined the tracks from New
York City to Washington, D.C., to view the
"funeral train" carrying
their fallen hero to his final resting place. They stood with signs of
prayer in their hands and tears in their eyes, grieving for the man and for
what could have been. Regardless of the electoral outcome, Kennedy's
untimely death robbed the nation of a charismatic agent of change.
The devastating effect that Kennedy's assassination had on the nation's
spirit and psyche was partially because it followed the fatal shootings of
President John F. Kennedy (which happened five years earlier) and Martin
Luther King Jr. (that was just months before). However, as Thurston Clarke
noted regarding the response to his book about RFK's inspiring presidential
campaign, many "felt the loss of Bobby Kennedy more keenly even than the
loss of John F. Kennedy. ... They felt the country would have been even more
different had Robert Kennedy been president than if John F. Kennedy had
The legal technicality that enabled Sirhan to become parole
eligible is easily overlooked by many Americans. They would only see the
release of a convicted assassin as a sign of undo leniency in the criminal
justice system and would bolster their demand for the death penalty as the
only sure-fire way of preventing such a miscarriage of justice.
avoid giving death penalty proponents a powerful argument for reversing the
waning support for capital punishment in this country, Sirhan must not be
paroled. He must not become the latest poster boy for retaining or even
expanding the archaic penalty of death.James Alan Fox is the
Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at
Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.
Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox.