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Sirhan Sirhan challenges refusal on par for murder of RFK

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Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, asks a judge Wednesday to release him from prison by overturning California Governor Gavin Newsom’s refusal earlier this year.

Sirhan shot Kennedy just after the US senator from New York claimed victory in the crucial Democratic presidential primaries in California. He injured five others in the shooting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Newsom said in January that Sirhan remains a threat to the public and has not taken responsibility for a crime committed changed American history.

But his lawyer, Angela Berry, says there is no evidence that her now 78-year-old client remains dangerous.

She is filing a habeas corpus, asking a judge to rule that Newsom has violated state law, which states that prisoners should be released on parole unless they pose a current unreasonable risk to public safety. Recent California laws also required the parole panel to consider that Sirhan committed the crime at a young age, when he was 24, and that he is now an elderly inmate.

Robert F. Kennedy was shot shortly after winning the Democratic presidential primaries in California.
Popper photo via Getty Images

Berry said she is challenging the governor’s undoing as an “abuse of discretion,” a denial of Sirhan’s constitutional right to a fair trial, and a violation of California law. It also alleges that Newsom misrepresented the facts in its decision.

Berry said the governor “acted with personal bias, incorporated the wrong law, ignored extenuating evidence and failed to grant Sirhan the same rights as others eligible for parole.”

Newsom dismissed two parole officers who discovered Sirhan was no longer a risk. Newsom said, among other things, that the Christian Palestinian who emigrated from Jordan has failed to reject violence in his name, increasing the risk that he could incite political violence.

Sirhan Sirhan is led away from the Ambassador Hotel after shooting Robert F. Kennedy.
Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy when he was 24 years old.
Bettmann Archive

The ruling divided the iconic Kennedy family, with two of RFK’s sons – Douglas Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – who supported his release. But RFK’s wife, Ethel Kennedy, and six of Kennedy’s nine surviving children opposed his parole.

Newsom has named RFK as his political hero and keeps RFK photos in both his official and home offices, including one of Kennedy with his late father. Berry accused him of politicizing parole.

Berry accused Newsom of putting his “political goals and agenda above those of the Constitution”.

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy lies on the ground at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, moments after he was fatally shot in the head by Sirhan Sirhan, a Jerusalem-born Christian Arab of Jordanian nationality.
Two sons of Robert F. Kennedy support the release of Sirhan Sirhan.
Los Angeles Times / Polaris

Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Newsom, a Democrat, has sought more national recognition in recent months from Republicans, particularly the governors of Florida and Texas. Newsom is up for re-election in November, but he also has led to speculation that he has presidential ambitions, something he has repeatedly denied.

It’s unclear how quickly a judge can rule on Berry’s petition, and either side can appeal an unfavorable decision. but Sirhan is set for a new parole hearing on March 1.

Sirhan was originally sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted to life in prison when the California Supreme Court briefly banned the death penalty in 1972.

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