Sirhan Sirhan is facing his 16th parole hearing for fatally shooting US senator Robert F Kennedy in 1968 – and for the first time, no prosecutor will be there to argue he should be kept behind bars.
Los Angeles County district attorney George Gascon, a former police officer who took office last year after running on a reform platform, said he idolised the Kennedys and mourned RFK’s assassination, but is sticking to his policy that prosecutors have no role in deciding whether prisoners should be released.
Mr Gascon said that decision is best left to California Parole Board members who can evaluate whether Sirhan has been rehabilitated and can be released safely.
Relitigating a case decades after a crime should not be the job of prosecutors, even in notorious cases, he said.
“The role of a prosecutor and their access to information ends at sentencing,” Alex Bastian, special advisor to Mr Gascon, said in a statement on Thursday.
The 77-year-old Sirhan has served 53 years for the first-degree murder of the New York senator and brother of President John F Kennedy.
RFK was a Democratic presidential candidate when he was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after delivering a victory speech in the pivotal California primary.
Mr Gascon said he admired Mr Kennedy, while Sirhan is “the kind of individual that we all like to hate”.
The prosecutor said: “I can get very emotionally wrapped around my personal feelings (about) someone that killed someone that I thought could have been an incredible president for this country.
“But that has no place in this process. Just like it doesn’t for the person nobody knows about.”
Sirhan’s new defence lawyer, Angela Berry, said she could not agree more.
She plans to argue that the board’s decision should be based on who Sirhan is today and not about past events, which is what the board has based its parole denials on before.
She said she plans to focus on his exemplary record in prison and show that he poses no danger.
“We can’t change the past, but he was not sentenced to life without the possibility of parole,” Ms Berry told the Associated Press on Thursday.
“To justify denying it based on the gravity of the crime and the fact that it disenfranchised millions of Americans is ignoring the rehabilitation that has occurred and that rehabilitation is a more relevant indicator of whether or not a person is still a risk to society.”
Sirhan’s hearing will be presided over by a two-person panel that usually announces its decision the same day.
After that, the Parole Board staff has 90 days to review the decision, and then it is handed over to the governor for consideration.
Sirhan, who was 24 at the time of the shooting, has in the past stuck to his account that he does not remember the killing.
However, he has recalled events before the crime in detail – going to a shooting range that day, visiting the hotel in search of a party and returning after realising he was too drunk to drive after downing Tom Collins cocktails.
Just before the assassination, he drank coffee in a hotel pantry with a woman to whom he was attracted.
The next thing he claims to remember is being choked and unable to breathe as he was taken into custody.
At his 2016 hearing, he said he felt remorse for any crime victim but could not take responsibility for the shooting.
Sirhan told the panel then that if released, he hoped he would be deported to Jordan or live with his brother in Pasadena, California.