I’m a prisoner advocate. I make no excuses for that sometimes unpopular slot, because I believe in what we do. Yes, I’ve been asked many times if I would continue to advocate for parole for someone who killed or harmed a member of my family, and my response has always been, if that person is rehabilitated, ready to be a pro-social and contributing part of society, then I would say follow the law, and grant parole if appropriate, not based on the crime or who the victim was or wasn’t, but on the actualities of the situation.
I’ve been very blessed that while I’ve been the victim of a violent crime, I have not lost a member of my family to crime. Those who know me know the same cannot be said for my husband, David, who lost a brother to murder a few months after David’s own release from a life sentence. So we do understand, on a person level, some of what victims go through.
There is one crime, however, that I’ve always considered a personal affront, a damage to me on a personal level. And that was the assassination of Robert Kennedy those many years ago. I’m not quite older than dirt (though close to it) but before I was old enough to vote I did volunteer work for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the one so suddenly and tragically ended by his assassination at the hand of Sirhan Bishara Sirhan.
The same Sirhan Bishara Sirhan found suitable for parole today.
I went to bed late on that lovely night in June 1968 young, idealistic, filled with happiness and hope that Bobby had won the California presidential primary, a great harbinger of his ability to capture the Democratic nomination for president (I’ve always been a raving liberal). Though not old enough to vote for Kennedy, I was able to do grunt work in the campaign offices, hang flyers on doorknobs and generally get my first, and lasting taste of politics. And I remember my disbelief the next morning on learning he was dead, murdered.
I've always considered myself something of a victim of Sirhan, as his actions truly impacted me, my life, my beliefs and to some extent my future, thus the definition of a victim, though not a relative. Bobby Kennedy’s death caused me to question nearly everything I believed, including God—surely God wouldn’t let a murder happen again to one family, let someone so intent on doing good be taken so awfully. Yes, I was naïve.
And I've always wondered what I would say, if given the chance, about Sirhan’s parole situation and how I would feel. So now we've come to that point, and I have to say, I'm OK with this. I look forward to reading the transcript of his hearing (I'm sure it will be one of the most requested transcripts on record) and am very curious about his remorse, one of the things the parole panels look for and something that, according to early reports, the commissioners found sufficient.
I think I'm OK with the grant because I understand the system, have considerable, but not total and complete, faith in that system and have managed, over time, to be able to let go of thoughts of vengeance in every situation. And I would be the worst of hypocrites if I said he should never be paroled because of the heinous nature of his crime alone, or because I feel personally impacted. And I note, two of Bobby Kennedy’s sons, the real VNOK in this case, also supported the release of Sirhan
While the BPH is careful not to reveal who the commissioner will be before any hearing, early reports are that it was Commissioner Robert Barton, a man who I know and have confidence in. Not that he makes perfect decisions, but when he errs, it is on the side of caution and he is no pushover due to age, time served or similar mitigating factors. Barton, a former deputy DA in Kern County and the former Inspector General for California, has stiff, but reasonable standards. He believes in the ability of people to change and grow and despite what his former professions might lead some to believe, his grant rate is pretty good.
He is, in short, one of the reasons the system works. Again, not perfectly, and not liberally, but it does work. Evidence of that is that for the last 3+ years more than 1,000 lifers each year have been found suitable and yet the recidivism rate for lifers remains below 1%.
Now the question becomes, what will the Governor do? Newsom has made several reversals that appear to be based primarily on political expediency, something I've discussed in great length and some heat, with his legal team, some of whom I also know. I have a very mixed bag of friends, you might say.
The Governor won’t be tasked with making that decision until after the recall is decided, which will be over well before any Governor has to take action on Sirhan. And perhaps that's just as well, because one should not impact the other, though it's almost inevitable that they would. One of the continuing flaws in our parole system in California..food for another time, another blog.
But at the appropriate time, when Sirhan’s grant is on the gubernatorial desk, I will submit a letter supporting that grant. Because it is in line with the law, with the checks and balances of the system and while I still feel impacted by Bobby Kennedy’s death, it is the law we live by, not emotion, not anger, not vengeance.