Laurence Tribe: Sirhan Sirhan was spared the death sentence for assassinating Kennedy, but he doesn’t deserve freedom
I was an idealistic 26-year-old clerking on the United States Supreme Court when Sirhan Sirhan murdered Robert F. Kennedy, then a leading candidate for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination.
My dreams — like those of millions of Americans — for a humane exit from the Vietnam War, for a brighter American future, were killed that day in a crowded hotel kitchen hallway, minutes after Kennedy won California’s Democratic primary. Having committed the assassination in a large crowd and on live television, Sirhan could hardly deny being the gunman.
At times, he has claimed his memory is blurry. But in interviews and interrogations, Sirhan, a Palestinian nationalist, has admitted to trying to kill Kennedy in retribution for Kennedy’s stance on Israel, doing so on the first anniversary of the beginning of the Six-Day War. But he does not take responsibility for ending the 42-year-old senator’s life and crushing the hopes of his millions of supporters. And certainly not for destroying the nation’s opportunity to pass democratic judgment on Kennedy’s bold message.
Sirhan is a political assassin. The nature of his action must determine how we view justice in his case.
When Sirhan was sentenced to death by a California court in April 1969, I felt ambivalent. As a law clerk for Justice Potter Stewart, I had helped draft an opinion, announced just two days before RFK’s murder, that curtailed juries’ ability to impose capital punishment by ending the practice of striking every juror with even the slightest qualms about the death penalty. It was a step toward abolition. But if anyone deserved capital punishment, I thought, it was Sirhan. And if the death penalty were to be ended, then at least Sirhan deserved to die in prison.
Over half a century has passed, and I continue to feel ambivalent about state-sponsored execution, although I’m close to being persuaded that no government — certainly no government in power today — is so infallible that it can justly put anyone to death. Not because none deserve that fate but because no government deserves to play God.
That said, I feel morally certain about this: that Sirhan’s life was spared when his death sentence was converted to life imprisonment in 1972, by virtue of California’s temporary abolition of the death penalty, should not result in him being given his freedom now or ever.
Even if it could be shown that Sirhan no longer poses a threat to others, he must never be released because our justice system demands the strictest punishment for the most atrocious crimes. There is no doubt in my mind that political assassination stands nearly alone in its threat to the foundation of society — it is a crime against our republic as much as against an individual.
I oppose Sirhan’s parole not because he murdered a politician I found inspiring; the assassin of a politician I vehemently oppose would be equally deserving of dying in prison. No, it’s because Sirhan took our history and government into his own bloody hands through an act of premeditated political violence.
The murder was a stroke of terrorism, committed against the nation, obliterating the right of Americans to settle in the ballot booth the debates over Kennedy’s positions on issues such as the Vietnam War, civil rights, social justice, poverty and U.S.-Israeli relations. Vitriolic as our political disagreements can be, we are a nation bound by the rule of law, not the rule of a revolver. By resorting to the latter, Sirhan forfeited his right ever again to breathe the air of freedom.
Those opposed to the death penalty should oppose releasing Sirhan, a move that would give death penalty supporters reason to claim that execution is the only way to remove from society the very worst offenders. And those favoring the death penalty surely should oppose releasing Sirhan.
Under California law, Sirhan has not met the factors that would entitle him to release. For those sentenced to life, parole can be granted only upon a finding of “suitability” for release. The law leaves “to the judgment of the panel” how to weigh factors such as the crime itself, the convict’s motivation and signs of remorse. When asked if he would kill again at his parole hearing on Friday, Sirhan remarked, “I would never put myself in jeopardy again.” Even in asking the state for mercy, Sirhan thinks only of himself, and not at all of his victims.
Bobby Kennedy’s nine surviving children have expressed divergent views on this issue. But as much as I sympathize with the pain felt by the majority of the Kennedy children, who oppose Sirhan’s release, no member of the senator’s family has a special claim to be heard here.
The promise of our judicial system is to impart equal justice based on our collective moral judgments as embodied in law, not on the grief and anger of victims’ families.
In this case, the question we need to answer is, what does an assassin deserve in matters of justice? Sirhan victimized not only the Kennedy family but also the American family. We the people were his victims. And it is we the people who should be outraged by the parole board panel’s decision to recommend his release. The full parole board should reverse that decision. If it doesn’t, Gov. Gavin Newsom must.
Laurence Tribe is the Carl M. Loeb university professor and professor of constitutional law emeritus at Harvard University. He served as the first head of the Access to Justice Office in the Obama administration. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.