I never met my father. When Sirhan Sirhan murdered him in the kitchen hallway of the Ambassador Hotel in front of scores of witnesses, my mother was three months pregnant with me. Of my 10 older brothers and sisters, Kathleen, the eldest, was 16, and Douglas, the youngest, was little more than one. I was born six months after my father’s death. My mother and the majority of my siblings agree with what I now write, although a couple do not. But I will say, for myself, while that night of terrible loss has not defined my life, it has had impact beyond measure.
In 1969, when Mr. Sirhan was found guilty by a jury of his peers and sentenced to death, I was barely a toddler. I know, as it is part of the historical record, that my uncle Teddy sent a five-page handwritten letter to the district attorney in a last-minute plea to save the condemned assassin’s life. The letter invoked my father’s beliefs: “My brother was a man of love and sentiment and compassion. He would not have wanted his death to be a cause for the taking of another life.”
Despite this plea, Superior Court Judge Herbert Walker upheld the sentence, ruling that Mr. Sirhan should “die in the manner prescribed by law,” which in California in 1969 was the gas chamber. There was no consideration of future rehabilitation. The court’s decision seemed based entirely upon the prevailing conception of justice in California at that time: As my father was taken forever, so too should Mr. Sirhan be.
My father’s murder was absolute, irreversible, a painful truth that I have had to live with every day of my life; he was indeed taken forever. Because he was killed before I was born, it meant I never had the chance to see my father’s face and he never had the chance to see mine. He never tossed me in the air, taught me to ride a bicycle, dropped me off at my freshman dorm, walked me down the aisle.
For America, the price of my father’s life and ambitions cut short has been incalculable—for the thousands of young men who died in Vietnam as the war my father opposed ground on for nearly seven more years, for the millions living in poverty or under the yoke of racism, for the wrongfully convicted who have languished behind prison walls, for the generation of would-be leaders whose hopes and dreams my father carried with him. Who knows what his death has cost?
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional and suspended it. At the time, “life without parole” was not yet an alternative in California; it wouldn’t take effect there for another six years. Mr. Sirhan’s sentence was commuted to “life with the possibility of parole.” Because of this, in legal terms, the word “forever” was taken off the table. This is just an explanation, not an argument; the way it touches upon our specific notions of justice is deeply personal. But the fact stands that while my father would be dead forever, Mr. Sirhan was not sentenced to prison forever.
I return to Uncle Teddy’s words: “My brother was a man of love and sentiment and compassion.” These are qualities I greatly admire, but I wonder, was Mr. Sirhan not already shown compassion when his death sentence was commuted to life in prison? It is a high-minded notion, after all, the belief that everyone—everyone—deserves a chance for rehabilitation and, after having served enough time in prison, even parole. Did Uncle Teddy ever imagine, in asking the court for compassion, that the man who killed his brother might one day walk free? I do not think so.
And what I do know is that Mr. Sirhan is not someone deserving of parole. I believe this despite the recommendation by the Los Angeles County parole board’s two-member panel to consider his release.
For prisoners sentenced to life, parole is based on evidence of their suitability for release—and to a significant degree, that means evidence of rehabilitation. At the time of the assassination, Mr. Sirhan admitted his guilt. At the time of the trial, he moved to plead guilty to murder in the first degree. Yet, across the decades that followed, right up through last week, he has not been willing to accept responsibility for his act and has shown little remorse. At his previous parole hearing, in 2016, when asked by Commissioner Brian Roberts to explain how he was involved in the murder, Mr. Sirhan replied, “I was there, and I supposedly shot a gun.”
The commissioner kept pressing: “I’m asking you to tell me what you believe you’re responsible for.”
Mr. Sirhan replied: “It’s a good question. Legally speaking, I’m not guilty of anything.”
Again, this was in 2016. He was 71 years old and had been incarcerated for 48 years. That he was, of course, denied parole, is easy to understand. And so my question is: What in the intervening five years has changed? We know that one or two laws have changed (as we’ve seen, they frequently do), maybe some attitudes have changed, and Mr. Sirhan is a few years older. For a dash of color, news reports consistently mention his snow white hair, as if somehow that indicates he’s no longer a threat.
But as last Friday’s parole hearing made clear, his suitability for release has not changed. According to Julie Watson, an Associated Press reporter present, Mr. Sirhan still maintains that he does not recall the killing and that “it pains me to experience that, the knowledge for such a horrible deed, if I did in fact do that.” If? How can you express remorse while refusing to accept responsibility? And how, having committed one of the most notorious assassinations of the latter part of the 20th century, can you be considered rehabilitated when you won’t even acknowledge your role in the crime itself?
Yet last week’s parole commissioner, Robert Barton, found a way. Although the official transcripts have not yet been released, he is reported as telling Mr. Sirhan, “We did not find that your lack of taking complete responsibility” for the shooting indicates that you are “currently dangerous.”
I know that prisons are overcrowded, and I realize that it is expensive to keep an older man behind bars. But without concern for justice or regard for rehabilitation, the parole panel of two has recommended that the man who killed my father be released. Free to live, perhaps, in Pasadena, Calif., with his brother, less than an hour’s drive from my home. Or, as is more likely, to go to Jordan, where he has citizenship.
It is true that Mr. Sirhan has been incarcerated for a long time. For 53 years, to be exact. That is, after all, an easy number for me to track. It is the same number of years that my father has been dead. It is the age that I turn on my birthday this year.
The decision to release Mr. Sirhan still has to be reviewed by the full parole board and then by California’s governor. I ask them, for my family—and I believe for our country, too—to please reject this recommendation and keep Sirhan Sirhan in prison.
This column was submitted by its author. A version of this guest column first appeared in the New York Times.