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The Man Convicted Of Killing Sen. Robert Kennedy Has Been Granted Parole


A panel of the California Parole Board has recommended that the man convicted of killing Senator Robert Kennedy be released from prison. Sirhan Sirhan has been behind bars for 53 years. NPR's Martin Kaste has been following this and joins us now.

Martin, we're talking about one of the most notorious assassins of the last century, and now he's going to be released. How did this come about?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, yes, maybe he will. So this is a recommendation from a panel of two members of the parole board to commissioners. And their recommendation is still subject to approval by the full board and the governor, which could take 120 days. But this is a big step toward freedom for Sirhan Sirhan. He's had 15 previous parole hearings before this one, and he was always denied until now.

CORNISH: OK, so hearing No. 16. What changed?

KASTE: Well, we're still getting some details about what happened in that hearing. But it seems the main factor was that the parole board is convinced that he's no longer a threat to anyone. I mean, he is 77 years old. He's got a good record in prison. There've also been some recent changes in the last few years in California law about encouraging parole for people who committed crimes when they were very young. The theory being that people mature, their brains mature after, you know, a certain point in your young adulthood. And you're a different person now, even if you've been in prison for 53 years in this case. And finally, the district attorney of Los Angeles, George Gascon, has made a policy now of not sending staffers anymore to these hearings to oppose parole. He thinks this decision should be up to the parole board itself, not the prosecutors. And so that may have of influenced things as well.

CORNISH: You know, this was truly a kind of pivotal moment in U.S. history, very dramatic. And people do look back on it with a lot of questions. Can you just kind of outline for us the history here?

KASTE: Right. Well, this was early June 1968. Kennedy had just won the California presidential primary for the Democratic Party. And he looked on his way to be the nominee of the party. And he'd just given a short speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He was moving back through the kitchen area with supporters and colleagues, and that's where Sirhan Sirhan shot him, also wounding other people. Kennedy died about a day later, and that assured the Democratic nomination of the vice president, Hubert Humphrey. And, of course, eventually the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, won the election.

CORNISH: What have you heard or what has been heard from in terms of the Kennedy family? Do they support this parole?

KASTE: Well, two of Kennedy's of sons were at today's hearing, which was closed to most media. We got reports through pool media. And we're told that one of them was there was moved by what he saw as the remorse Sirhan Sirhan has shown at these hearings, although I should say over the years, Sirhan's remorse has always been a bit qualified by the fact that he also insists he does not remember shooting Kennedy. But in the past, some of the members of the Kennedy family have expressed doubts about his guilt. And Robert Kennedy Jr. told The Washington Post a couple of years ago that he's become convinced that Sirhan did not kill his father and even met with Sirhan in prison to talk about it.

CORNISH: What's the basis for those doubts?

KASTE: Almost since the night of that shooting, there have been theories out there. Some people think that Sirhan, who was an Arab immigrant from the Middle East, was somehow hypnotized or programmed to kill Kennedy. This is based in part by the fact that he doesn't remember - says he doesn't remember shooting Kennedy. Other people say there were more shots fired than could be accounted for by his gun. That's the belief of Paul Schrade, who was a labor organizer who was there that night with Kennedy. He also got shot. But he's been calling for years for Sirhan's release. I talked to him yesterday, and he says he hopes that if Sirhan now can be paroled, that could somehow reopen this whole investigation and find the true killer.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Martin Kaste.

Thanks for the update.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.