Does Sirhan Sirhan deserve mercy?

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Sirhan Sirhan.
Sirhan Sirhan. Illustrated | AP Images, iStock

Mercy is an odd virtue. It is highly valued, the object of sermons and poems, and yet practiced only rarely. When somebody harms us we generally want that person to pay for the damage, in order to balance the scales of justice. To act mercifully is to give up some measure of power over those who have done wrong. Vengeance and punishment come naturally, but letting an offender go unpunished — or underpunished — is counterintuitive at best.

Now Sirhan Sirhan is seeking mercy from the state of California. The question is whether he deserves it.

Sirhan, 77, killed Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 — just a few minutes after Kennedy had claimed victory in that year's Democratic presidential primary in California. He was initially given the death penalty, but the sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment. Last month, after 53 years, a two-person panel in California recommended that Sirhan be paroled. After the process plays out, the ultimate decision may fall to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, and so far, at least, Newsom isn't officially saying which way he might lean, other than to proclaim "my reverence, my respect, and my adulation" for RFK and the Kennedy family.

Unsurprisingly, the parole recommendation has generated a tremendous backlash. Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe has been among the most vocal critics, saying that Sirhan should stay in prison "because our justice system demands the strictest punishment for the most atrocious crimes." Most of Kennedy's family agrees. "My father's murder was absolute, irreversible, a painful truth that I have had to live with every day of my life," Rory Kennedy wrote for The New York Times. She was born six months after the senator's death.

Under most circumstances, Newsom's decision would be easy enough. Politicians haven't often paid a price for adopting a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" attitude, particularly when backed by the angry families of victims. California, after all, was the original "tough on crime" state. But the parole recommendation has support from another family member — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — who has proclaimed his belief in Sirhan's innocence. And this moment arrives after years of campaigning by progressive activists against the perils of overincarceration. Indeed, one reason Sirhan's application has made it this far after years of rejection is that the Los Angeles district attorney, who ran on a reform platform, didn't oppose it — the office no longer testifies in parole hearings, saying the prosecutor's role ends at sentencing.

The smell of potential hypocrisy is thick in the air. "If Democrats don't think Robert Kennedy's assassin deserves parole, do they really support criminal justice reform?" MSNBC's Chris Geidner asked Monday.

The case for releasing Sirhan is straightforward. The man is a septuagenarian who has spent more than half a century behind bars. Keeping him in prison is expensive, but setting him free would probably do little harm — it's unlikely he will kill again. If Sirhan weren't one of the world's most famous assassins, there's a good chance he could have gone free with relatively little fuss.

On the other hand, Sirhan is one of the world's most famous assassins for a very good reason. His victim wasn't just Robert Kennedy, or Robert Kennedy's family, but American democracy itself. Sirhan was angry at Kennedy for his support for Israel, and he shot Kennedy on the anniversary of the Six Day War. In doing so, he deprived millions of Americans of the choice to determine their future at the ballot box. If Kennedy had survived, would he have become president? Would Richard Nixon have been forced back into political retirement? Would the war in Vietnam have ended earlier? We cannot know. What seems certain, though, is that Sirhan can never make good the lost future he robbed from the country.

Which leads us back to the original question: Does Sirhan deserve mercy?

Of course not. But the thing about mercy is that it is almost never fully merited. The best you can do with official acts of grace — parole, clemency, or pardon — is to ensure they don't test our collective sense of justice too much. In this respect, though, Sirhan fails again. Rory Kennedy pointed out that although Sirhan initially admitted guilt in the case, he has often fudged the question of his responsibility for Robert Kennedy's death — one of the parole board members this year even commented to Sirhan on "your lack of taking complete responsibility" for the crime. If that's the case, the state of California should expect a more convincing show of contrition. Mercy is always a gift, but it doesn't have to be given cheaply.

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