Column: Thanks to Newsom, Sirhan will remain where he belongs — prison

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Sirhan Sirhan reacts during a parole hearing Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. For the 15th time, officials denied parole for Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, after hearing Wednesday from another person who was shot that night and called for the release of Sirhan. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, Pool)
Sirhan Sirhan during a parole hearing on Feb. 10, 2016, at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Give Gov. Gavin Newsom credit: Whatever you might think of him on other matters, he got it completely right on Sirhan Sirhan.

No. 1, Sirhan committed an unpardonable crime against America that changed our history for the worse.

No. 2, although some conspiracy theorists question Sirhan’s guilt, the evidence is overwhelming that he murdered Sen. Robert F. Kennedy by shooting him in the back of the head.

No. 3, the convicted killer now says he can’t remember whether he shot Kennedy. That’s very hard to believe since he confessed several times in the past. At any rate, it tarnishes the credibility of any remorse he might express.

No. 4, he deserves to die in prison.

That last thought is mine. Newsom didn’t quite go there Thursday in announcing his refusal to free Sirhan, rejecting a two-person parole panel’s recommendation that the 77-year-old killer be released after 53 years behind bars.

Newsom was clear and unequivocal.

Sirhan’s assassination of Kennedy “is among the most notorious crimes in American history,” the governor asserted. “Mr. Sirhan lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the same types of dangerous decisions he made in the past.”

In an op-ed piece for The Times, Newsom wrote that “Kennedy’s assassination not only changed the course of this nation and robbed the world of a promising young leader, it also left his 11 children without a father and his wife without a husband. ... Millions of Americans lost a unifier in a time of national turmoil and grief.”

June 5, 1968: Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy lies on the floor at the Ambassador Hotel.
June 5, 1968: Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy lies on the floor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot in the head. He had just finished his victory speech upon winning the California primary. (Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times)

Sirhan shot Kennedy in a crowded pantry room of the former Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles minutes after the senator declared victory in the pivotal 1968 California presidential primary.

One of Kennedy’s daughters, Kerry Kennedy, recalled in a poignant interview with MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell on Friday how she learned her father had been shot.

“I remember as a kid campaigning with daddy. We went to Disneyland,” she said. “We went to the Ambassador Hotel and waited for the returns to come back. I was 8 years old, so I was sent to our hotel, which was elsewhere in L.A., and I went to sleep.

“And the next morning I got up to watch cartoons…. I was watching Bugs Bunny alone in this hotel with my feet crossed, and I’m watching the screen, and that’s how I learned that my father had been shot.”

“I don’t want any other family to go through what we have gone through,” she added. “And that’s why this guy cannot get out of jail. He has no remorse. He has no regret. He has not been rehabilitated. And he has a hair-trigger rage. He’s very, very, very dangerous to society.”

The Kennedy family was split on whether Sirhan should be paroled, but the large majority opposed it.

Ethel Kennedy, 93, and six of the Kennedy children issued a statement Thursday thanking Newsom.

“Driven by maliciousness and resentment, the killer’s violent act contradicted the values of openness, dialogue and democratic change that Robert Kennedy embraced and that underlie our political system,” the family wrote.

“Leading up to the murder, the killer wrote in his diary more than a thousand times that ‘RFK must die … must be assassinated.’ …. Embittered by the Arab-Israeli conflict, he admitted at trial that he acted deliberately on the anniversary of the Six-Day War, killing in reprisal for Kennedy’s pledge to send military aid to Israel.”

June 28, 1968, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan is escorted by his attorney, Russell E. Parsons from Los Angeles county jail.
In this June 28, 1968, file photo, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan is escorted by his attorney, Russell E. Parsons from Los Angeles county jail chapel to enter plea to charge of murder in Los Angeles. U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's assassin was granted parole Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, after two of RFK's sons spoke in favor of Sirhan Sirhan's release and prosecutors declined to argue he should be kept behind bars. (George Brich / Associated Press)

Sirhan is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian.

On the opposite side, anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr contends that a second gunman killed his father. He has advocated for Sirhan’s release. So has another son, Fox News correspondent Douglas Kennedy, who says Sirhan is “worthy of compassion and love.”

In his op-ed piece, Newsom wrote that “perhaps it is easier for some to accept debunked false claims than confront the difficult truth: Sirhan, one man with a gun, acting alone, inflicted grievous harm to our country.”

Kerry Kennedy called it “a terrorist attack on our democracy…. And our country has never healed from that.”

In his written decision, Newsom stated that “the gravity of Mr. Sirhan’s crimes alone counsels against his release.”

We’ll never know to what extent Sirhan changed America by killing the Democrats’ leading presidential contender. But we can speculate.

I have little doubt that Kennedy’s California triumph would have propelled him to the Democratic nomination at the party’s convention in Chicago. Instead, the convention was torn apart by bloody anti-Vietnam War rioting. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a war supporter, was nominated. The party fractured and Republican Richard Nixon narrowly won.

If Kennedy had carried the party banner, he would have energized Democrats and beaten Nixon. He would have eagerly withdrawn from Vietnam much sooner than Nixon did, saving thousands of American lives.

There wouldn’t have been Nixon’s psychotic Watergate scandal that further soured Americans against their government. And southern school integration would have been swifter.

No Nixon would have meant no George H.W. Bush, who was made a political star by the GOP president. That also would have meant no Bush 2.

Ronald Reagan’s presidency would have moved up four years to when he was younger and more vibrant. He’d have beaten Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Bill Clinton still would have been elected but succeeded by either Democrat Al Gore or Republican John McCain. Not George W. Bush. And we probably would not have gotten suckered into a too-costly Iraq War.

That’s all guesswork.

What’s certain is that Sirhan will remain where he belongs — locked up. Thanks to Newsom.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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