Sirhan Sirhan, California, Gavin Newsom, Parole
Sirhan Sirhan (left). California Gov. Gavin Newsom (right). Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from @BillFOXLA / Twitter and Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) .

–OPINION–

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) flat-out lied Thursday as he sought to justify his rejection of parole for Sirhan Sirhan, who was framed for killing 1968 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

Newsom explained his decision in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, stating: “Over the years, Sirhan and his advocates have churned false claims about Kennedy’s assassination. Each claim of Sirhan’s innocence has been investigated and disproved.”

That self-serving statement by Newsom is not only false but is knowingly false, as we can attest as attorneys involved for years with Sirhan’s defense. There has never been a hearing exploring, much less disproving, the scientific and witness evidence (much of it recent) that a second shooter inflicted the fatal shots at point-blank, powder-burn range from the rear. Sirhan’s gun was no closer than 1.5 to 5 feet in front of Kennedy, according to witnesses, and thus he could not have fired the powder-burn shots from the rear.

That evidence was never raised at Sirhan’s 1969 murder trial, where his defense attorney, secretly compromised by his wrongdoing in another case, failed to mount a science-based innocence defense. He instead concurred that his client had killed RFK but argued that he was mentally incompetent. Not only did the defense fail to introduce that readily available evidence, it was left to an enterprising writer from CNN to make the shocking discovery in 2004 that a reporter in the room at the time of the assassination had recorded 12 to 14 gunshot sounds. Sirhan’s gun only held eight bullets.

Sirhan, who has a strong record of good conduct in prison, has been eligible for parole since the early 1980s but has been prevented by California parole board rules from introducing any ballistics or evidence of innocence in those proceedings. Instead, the parole petitions were rejected every five years for tangential reasons until a two-member parole board panel last August applied the correct criteria, finding that Sirhan posed no risk to the community, and recommended for his parole, subject to Newsom’s approval.

Our arguments regarding the facts of the case are authenticated in a report published last year by the Truth & Reconciliation Committee, a group formed in 2019 by more than 60 experts with credentials in law, medicine, or other relevant areas to investigate four iconic 1960s assassinations, including RFKs. That report is available at the committee’s site and also in excerpted form at the affiliated Justice for RFK and Justice Integrity Project sites.  

As founding members of that committee who remain active in its leadership, we can verify that there has been no outreach whatsoever by Newsom or members of his administration to explore the evidence of innocence and other mitigating factors in that report, which was drawn from numerous books and other documents by authors and eyewitnesses who have labored for years to rectify this gross injustice.

We on this committee recognize, of course, the tragic consequences of the assassination both for the Kennedy family and for the nation. One of us, Bill Pepper, has long been a community activist and was RFK’s citizens chairman in Westchester County, NY, in his successful 1964 campaign for one of New York’s Senate seats. Pepper, who in 2007 assumed the role of Sirhan’s main defense counsel (albeit not for the current parole proceeding), has said repeatedly that he never would have represented him on a merely procedural defense without a belief that none of the shots Sirhan fired killed RFK.

In Newsom’s formal legal statement rejecting the parole board’s decision, the governor wrote: 

When the Board proposes that an inmate convicted of murder be released on parole, I am authorized to conduct an independent, de novo review of the entire record, including “the facts of the offense, the inmate’s progress during incarceration, and the insight he or she has achieved into past behavior,” to determine the inmate’s suitability for parole.

As longtime attorneys, journalists, and authors on such topics, each of us is reluctant to suggest that someone intentionally lies, as opposed to being mistaken or misinformed. But there’s no other concept aside from “lying” to describe a situation when someone like Newsom claims he has examined the “the facts of the offense” and somehow “proven” the evidence wrong when there’s no record of any such hearing, examination, or other proceeding anywhere at any time, which indicates he has not done the research he claims. 

Sadly, the governor compounds his obviously false claim of due diligence by ladling on the monumental hypocrisy of asserting that Sirhan, age 77, deserves to spend his future describing the fairness of the justice system. Newsom, for his part, goes on to insinuate — for his own greater glory — his respect for the Kennedy family and the justice system, while assembling a track record of routinely rejecting parole recommendations issued by the state board. In each of the last two years, Newsom has reversed 33 paroles for murderers, according to a Washington Post report.

This is an appropriate time and forum to alert the public that there are a few — very few — professionals who have fulfilled the ostensible goals of their specialties in this case. 

First and foremost in time is probably Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the Los Angeles County medical examiner, who wrote an honest autopsy report on Kennedy confirming that the shots that hit him came from the rear. Noguchi suffered prompt firing for fulfilling his duty before being reinstated to continue his long and illustrious career in that post. He’s still alive, and there’s no public evidence whatsoever that California authorities like Newsom have drawn on his expertise, or that of his still-living and also eminent colleague, Dr. Cyril Wecht, the longtime Pennsylvania coroner whom Noguchi consulted immediately on the night of the shooting and in many cases since then.

The Full Story of the Sirhan Sirhan Parole Hearing

  

Also in this all-too-small pantheon of civic-minded and still-living witnesses is Paul Schrade, RFK’s campaign aide and close friend. Schrade was shot in the head by Sirhan but became convinced that Sirhan’s shots did not kill RFK and that a second shooter must have done it.

In a fast-forward to current times, there are certain journalists, authors, and attorneys who have donated vast amounts of time in essentially pro bono work on the evidence in this case, which is usually countered by emotion-based appeals that make no reference to actual evidence. 

Among the few mainstream journalists who have avoided that trap are the late Brad Johnson of CNN, who tracked down the long-ignored audio tape of the shooting recorded by a reporter, and Tom Jackman of The Washington Post, an experienced crime reporter who has published extensive, in-depth news stories on the case. His January 13 report on Newsom’s decision similarly presents all sides of major issues, including this:

Sirhan’s attorney, Angela Berry, released a statement that said the parole process had become politicized, and that she would challenge Newsom’s decision in the courts. 

“We fully expect that judicial review of the governor’s decision will show that the governor got it wrong,” Berry said. “The California Supreme Court has declared that life prisoners have a due process right to meaningful consideration for parole. Parole is presumed and it will only be denied under the law if the prisoner poses a current unreasonable risk to the public if released. Not an iota of evidence exists to suggest Mr. Sirhan is still a danger to society.”

William F. Pepper, an attorney and author, became Sirhan’s primary defense attorney in 2007 aside from the current parole proceeding, from which he withdrew because of illness. Andrew Kreig, an attorney and investigative reporter who leads the Justice Integrity Project, has provided research assistance for the defense. California attorney Angela Berry handled the parole application and won the favorable outcome for Sirhan before the parole panel in August. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the two authors.