Correction: An earlier version of this column mischaracterized who ran in the 1968 California Democratic primary.
The recent 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 it should.
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 death.
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 lived.”
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.
To 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.