The release of Mr. Sirhan B. Sirhan presents Governor Newsom with a challenging political calculation, but the legal decision for Mr. Sirhan’s release is clear and straight-forward. I am Mr. Sirhan’s parole attorney, and as such I have reviewed the thousands of documents pertaining to Mr. Sirhan’s case and his confinement in a California state prison for the last 53 years.
The California Supreme Court has declared that prisoners sentenced to life have a due process right to meaningful consideration for parole. Parole is meant to be presumed, and it will only be denied under the law if the prisoner poses a current, unreasonable risk to the public if released. No evidence exists to suggest Mr. Sirhan is still a danger to society.
The governor got it wrong when he reversed his Board’s decision. Mr. Sirhan has been a model prisoner for one-half a century; he serves no threat to society; and the law requires his release. We expect that the courts will overturn the Governor’s decision.
Unfortunately, the parole process has become politicized. In 1988, the law shifted, allowing the governor to overrule the decision of the experienced parole board members, who, unlike the governor, are career law enforcement officials such as former prison wardens, judges, probation officers, peace officers and district attorneys.
The Parole Board, whose members are selected by the governor, granted Mr. Sirhan parole, consistent with the law. The decision of the two-member panel of the Board was reviewed by the entire 20 member Board and thereafter, the Parole Board’s legal team. The recommendation for release passed those three levels of scrutiny. But the governor chose to overrule his own experts, and in doing so he ignored the law.
The governor’s stated rationale for denying parole is misleading and omits crucial information.
For instance, the governor criticizes Mr. Sirhan for having what the Governor calls a “shifting narrative about the assassination.”. What the Governor ignores is that experts for both the prosecution and defense noted the dissociative state that Mr. Sirhan was in at the time of the crime. This state of dissociation was agreed to by experts for the prosecution and the defense at the time of trial. This conclusion was corroborated in 2020 by a mental health expert appointed by the court. The governor’s decision appears to ignore the fact that fails to understand that dissociation causes memory loss. This so-called “shifting memory” is simply a result of Mr. Sirhan, like the rest of us, trying to understand what happened that fateful night. Given his lack of memory, he is susceptible to suggestions from others claiming to have the answers. All of these facts were included in the same 2020 mental health report and are part of the record the Board relied upon, but of which the governor seems to have ignored.
The Governor additionally takes issue with what he characterizes as Sirhan’s refusal take responsibility for the crime. However, perhaps the Governor is unaware of the codified California law that prohibits making a grant of parole contingent on the prisoner’s admission to committing the crime (Penal Code section 5011.)
The Governor further claims that Mr. Sirhan has not made amends. But again, it appears that the Governor is ill-informed. Mr. Sirhan has repeatedly sought to meet with the Kennedys, and all but Robert, Jr. have rebuffed his attempts. Robert Jr. met with Mr. Sirhan in 2018. The two laughed and cried, and per Robert Jr.’s account, he has forgiven Mr. Sirhan and supports Mr. Sirhan’s release from custody.
Further, the Governor relies on the 2021 Board psychologist’s report but misinterprets statements from the report and utterly ignores the psychologist’s ultimate conclusion: - that Mr. Sirhan does not pose a current unreasonable risk to public safety if released. Incidentally, this psychologist’s report is consistent with all the other conclusions of Board psychologists since the mid-1980’s.
In his Op-Ed piece where he announced his reversal of his Board’s decision, the Governor ingratiates himself to the Kennedys who objected to Mr. Sirhan’s release but altogether disregards the desires of the only surviving victim, Paul Schrade, who for years has advocated for Mr. Sirhan’s release. He also ignores the wishes of Robert Kennedy, Jr. and Douglas Kennedy, who both support release. Douglas was the only Kennedy who actually took the time to attend the parole hearing and truly learn of Mr. Sirhan’s rehabilitation.
I am confident that a judicial review of the governor’s decision will show that he acted outside the law, and that the reversal of the parole grant is devoid of any legal merit.