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September 6, 2021

"If Democrats don't think Robert Kennedy’s assassin deserves parole, do they really support criminal justice reform?"

The question in the title of this post is the subtitle of this new MSNBC commentary authored by Chris Geidner.  The main headline is "California may parole Robert Kennedy's assassin. Liberals aren't happy."  Here are excerpts:

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.

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.”...

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.”...

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....

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.

Prior related posts:

September 6, 2021 at 11:06 AM | Permalink


The heading of the op-ed is hyperbole. People don't think in absolutes to that degree.

Laurence Tribe has been a tad offensive on this issue, including on Twitter where he cites 1/6 as if that helps much to determine if LWOP is necessary. Even noting his original op-ed showed Tribe is not really a firm opponent of the death penalty, Tribe has been troll-y.

He has that tendency at times. I guess that is a risk for professors of all types at times. [bit of an inside reference]

Sirhan Sirhan is one of those tougher cases that usually don't have to be faced.

I'm willing -- though in general discussions it often isn't really that helpful -- to face up to extreme and special cases. The talk during same sex marriage discussions that get to the point where people want to do away with marriage or talk about incest or polygamy or something too.

But, the vast majority of the cases, even murderers, aren't like this. Take the guy, one of a mere handful this year, due to be executed in Texas. This is the 'worse of the worst'?

"Mr. Ramirez was condemned for stabbing to death a Corpus Christi man named Pablo Castro in 2004. Drunk and high, Mr. Ramirez was driving around with two female friends looking for people to rob when they came upon Mr. Castro taking out the trash at a convenience store where he worked. Mr. Ramirez stabbed him 29 times. Prosecutors described the attack as a robbery that netted $1.25.

Mr. Ramirez evaded law enforcement for three years, fleeing to Mexico and starting a family there. He was captured near the border in 2007, convicted and sentenced to death."

The guy is now under 40. Without determining if the Boston Marathon murderer deserves the death penalty, suffice to say, I don't think this is a hard call. It's an arbitrary lottery when a vast number of others are not executed.

One or more people here want a whole lot more to be executed, even for non-homicides. But, that is not the wish of the country at large.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 6, 2021 12:12:32 PM

Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/30/us/on-death-row-in-texas-a-last-request-a-prayer-and-human-contact.html

The aggravators appear to be the brutal nature of the the murder and him fleeing. But, many single murders that are a result of robbery are brutal. Few result in executions.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 6, 2021 12:19:17 PM

Since there has been ample evidence for decades that Sirhan didn't actually shoot Bobby (including the LA Coroner), has no memory of even being at the scene (as measured over the past 50 years by multiple teams of doctors), and there was extensive tampering of the evidence and a faulty police investigation in general, and even Bobby's son--who has talked with Sirhan in person--believes Sirhan innocent,any rational human being would parole him.

Modern-day liberals and Democrats seem to be irrational in almost every field, including this one. Over-incarceration is one of the results. Sirhan should have been paroled decades ago. I hope it will happen now.

Posted by: restless94110 | Sep 6, 2021 3:50:07 PM

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