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Convicted RFK assassin denied parole

By Michael Martinez, CNN
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Sen. Kennedy's assassin speaks out
  • Sirhan Sirhan will not be eligible for parole again for five years
  • Two psychologists' reports say Sirhan poses no threat to society, his attorney says
  • Sirhan, 66, is serving a life sentence for the 1968 slaying of Robert Kennedy

Coalinga, California (CNN) -- A California state panel on Wednesday denied parole for Sirhan B. Sirhan, saying the convicted assassin of Robert F. Kennedy hasn't demonstrated an understanding of the "magnitude" of his crimes.

Commissioner Mike Prizmich of the California Board of Parole Hearings told Sirhan that he failed to meet the state's criteria for suitability for parole by blaming others for his problems, behaving immaturely and not seeking enough self-help programs.

In response, Sirhan sought to interrupt Prizmich, who admonished the inmate. Prizmich, however, said Sirhan would be eligible for parole again in five years.

"At this hearing, you're interrupting me time and time again, demonstrating a lack of control and impulsivity," Prizmich told Sirhan.

Sirhan made his first appearance before a California parole board since 2000, supported by two psychologists' reports saying he no longer poses a threat to society, his attorney said.

Wednesday marked Sirhan's 14th parole hearing, held in the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, California, which is 200 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

2009: RFK assassination remembered

Members of the Kennedy family and their representatives didn't attend the meeting, nor did they return messages or e-mails seeking a comment prior to the hearing.

Sirhan was convicted of killing Kennedy and wounding five other people in the shooting in the kitchen pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968. The hotel was later razed and a public school now occupies the site.

In Wednesday's hearing, Prizmich did say that Sirhan's record -- clean of any significant discipline problems -- was encouraging.

Sirhan's overall demeanor, prior to the rejection of his parole request, "does give some evidence and hope you're improving," Prizmich said.

But, Prizmich added, "you have failed in some areas."

Dressed in a prison denim jacket and blue shirt, Sirhan appeared nervous as he entered the hearing room, and he told the panel his breathing was labored because he's been fighting valley fever.

His hair now graying and balding after 43 years in prison, a clean-shaven Sirhan spoke for much of the four-hour hearing, answering questions from the parole board about the crime and what he has done to improve himself.

"It's a horrible nightmare not just for me but for you and the whole country," Sirhan said of the Kennedy assassination and his other convictions for wounding five persons.

On occasion, Sirhan flashed a gap-toothed smile, but as Prizmich announced the parole denial, Sirhan bit his tongue.

Prizmich said that Sirhan needed to reflect more deeply on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which he attended in prison from the mid 1980s to early 1990s. Sirhan said he drank four Tom Collins highballs prior to the Kennedy shooting.

Prizmich also told Sirhan to read books and demonstrate improvement.

"I see," Sirhan said, and he whispered to his attorney, Pepper.

"No, you're not," Prizmich replied. "You're talking to your attorney and smiling."

At another point, Prizmich told Sirhan: "What we didn't see today is an understanding of the magnitude of this loss."

The parole board was also disturbed by how Sirhan described his wounding of five other people in the 1968 shooting as "flesh wounds." In fact, the injuries were more serious, Prizmich said.

"Your lack of insight into this crime is one of great concern to us," Prizmich told Sirhan.

Prizmich urged Sirhan to enter a program for anger management and expressed dismay at his "vaguely made references to conspiracies."

"Conspiracies that law enforcement or the CIA set you up or the district attorney was part of this ... it seems as though everything negative that occurred to you was someone else's fault," Prizmich told Sirhan.

"It does indicate you need more work," Prizmich continued.

Sirhan sought to interrupt Prizmich several times, leading the parole board commissioner to state: "Sir, you're not going to interrupt again."

Prizmich told Sirhan that while he received two "positive" psychological reviews, he had problems with "acting out in an immature and impulsive way," Prizmich said.

After Prizmich and deputy commissioner Randy Kevorkian outlined self-help programs for Sirhan, Prizmich added: "I hope I'm giving you some positive encouragement."

Prizmich also said "I've noticed your improvement. I'm glad you're now cooperating with psychologists. But there were years of not participating in any of that."

Sirhan's attorney, William Pepper, expressed "disappointment" with the parole board's decision and said Sirhan will appeal the matter to the courts.

"Whenever you see a system of justice as we saw this afternoon, one has to be very chagrined," Pepper said.

Sirhan has shown remorse and has even avoided inmates' provocations, especially after the September 11 attacks in which other prisoners mistakenly accused Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian, of being Muslim and a terrorist.

The parole board "ignored every thing we had to say, and they went on the emotional kick of a loss of a presidential candidate," Pepper said. "The magnitude of the crime has nothing to do with his suitability of being released from prison after 43 years."

In what attorneys on both sides called an extraordinary appearance, one of the surviving shooting victims in the 1968 assassination, retired TV journalist William Weisel, attended the parole hearing and told the parole panel that he wouldn't object to Sirhan's release if the board okayed it.

Weisel based his statement on the fact that a state psychologist and a private psychologist hired by Sirhan's attorney both agreed that Sirhan wouldn't pose a threat to society if he were paroled.

But after the state panel rejected Sirhan's parole request, Weisel said he wasn't surprised.

"He was argumentative," Weisel said of Sirhan's occasional behavior when the rejection was announced. "He spoke when other people were speaking."

Now 73, Weisel, of Healdsburg, California, was an ABC News associate director at the time of the shooting.

Weisel, who shared with CNN his prepared statement to the parole board, said he was hit by a stray bullet in the abdomen "on that terrible evening" a quarter past midnight on June 5, 1968, after Kennedy had just won the California primary in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Wednesday's hearing marked the first time that Weisel ever saw Sirhan face-to-face. Weisel said he never saw Sirhan during the 1968 shooting in the Los Angeles hotel where Kennedy was celebrating his California victory.

"I would not be telling the truth if it wasn't something of a shock to see him in person," Weisel told reporters after the parole hearing.

In closing statements prior the board's ruling, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney David Dahle urged the panel to deny parole.

"Certainly no other prisoner's crime presents as dark a moment in American history, in California's history, in Los Angeles County's history as the killing of a presidential candidate following his primary win," Dahle told the board.

Dahle declined to comment on Weisel's statement, but he said Weisel's appearance marked the first time during Sirhan's imprisonment that a surviving witness voiced no objection to his possible parole -- at least since 1970.

Prior to 1970, "there's no record of the proceedings and I don't know if anyone showed up," Dahle said.

"It's fairly unusual. It's not common," Dahle added with respect to victims attending a parole hearing and not objecting to the prisoner being released. "We don't get many, at least in cases in Los Angeles County -- where we get victims or victims' next of kin coming to cases. It's an expensive proposition."

Pepper, an international human rights attorney and a barrister with offices in New York and London, said he and Sirhan were "very grateful" for Weisel's statement.

Sirhan was convicted of first-degree murder and five counts of assault with attempt to commit murder.

Four of those five surviving victims are alive, including Weisel. The others are Paul Schrade, a Kennedy family friend and former UAW Union regional leader; Ira Goldstein, a former radio journalist; and Elizabeth Y. Evans, a friend of the late Pierre Salinger.

A Palestinian Christian who was born in Jerusalem and whose parents brought him and his siblings to America in the 1950s, Sirhan killed Kennedy because of statements the New York senator made about the United States sending fighter jets to aid Israel, prosecutors argued during Sirhan's 1969 trial.

In 1968, Sen. Kennedy, who was a younger brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, in whose administration he also served as attorney general, was a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, competing against Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy was shot only minutes after a hotel ballroom speech televised live to American households, in which he claimed victory over McCarthy in the California primary.

The shooting, in the hotel's kitchen pantry, was not captured by any cameras.

Sirhan was the only person arrested in the shooting.

Sirhan has Jordanian citizenship, but never became a U.S. citizen, so if the parole board were to release him, he would be deemed an illegal immigrant and deported to Jordan, where he has extended family, his attorney said.

Sirhan's younger brother, Munir, 63, continues to live in the southern California community where the Sirhan family siblings were raised, Munir Sirhan said.

Sirhan Sirhan "has maintained a good relationship with his brother and he would love to live with this brother in Pasadena, but that's very unlikely because of his immigration status," Pepper said.

Daniel Brown, an associate clinical professor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, submitted a statement to the parole board after interviewing Sirhan for 60 hours over a three-year period, Pepper said in an interview prior to the hearing.

"The report is part of a sealed file, but I can say that Sirhan does not have any violent tendency that should be regarded as a threat to the community," Pepper told CNN before the hearing.

Brown's report "confirms Sirhan's legitimacy of the loss of his memory," including in the pantry during the shooting and in moments of his life in the year prior to the Kennedy slaying, Pepper said.

"Sirhan has at various times taken responsibility (for the Robert Kennedy assassination), but the actual fact is that he doesn't remember what happened in the pantry at all. But because everyone around there told him he did it and he had a pistol and he did fire that pistol, he came to believe that he was actually guilty," Pepper said.

Sirhan shows no sign of mental illness and has demonstrated remorse for the shootings, Pepper said.

"He's said no day of his life goes by where he doesn't have remorse and deep regret that this took place and the role he played in this thing," Pepper said. "He's not schizophrenic or psychotic, and he has not shown any history of violence during incarceration."

Pepper said he became Sirhan's pro bono attorney in the fall of 2007 after he learned of the results of an audio analysis conducted on a sound track of the Kennedy shooting. The audio recording, made 40 feet away from the crime scene by free-lance newspaper reporter Stanislaw Pruszynski, is the only known recording of the gunshots in that June 1968 assassination.

Pepper said he believes the Pruszynski recording is evidence showing that there was a second gun firing in addition to Sirhan's Iver-Johnson handgun. The tape was uncovered in 2004 by CNN's Brad Johnson, who had the recording independently examined by two audio analysts, Spence Whitehead in Atlanta, Georgia, and Philip Van Praag in Tucson, Arizona. Johnson reported on their separate findings for CNN's Backstory in June 2009.

But the parole board didn't hear arguments on the second-gun evidence. Rather, the parole panel focused on Sirhan's suitability for parole.

The Pruszynski recording "clearly showed that 13 shots were fired in the pantry, and Sirhan's gun had only eight shots, so it definitely means there was a second shooter," Pepper said in an interview before the hearing.

But Weisel, joined by authorities who have dismissed the second-gun assertion, said he was convinced that Sirhan was a lone gunman.

"I've seen so many theories after 43 years. Please -- I think you can have a conspiracy in a dictatorship and some countries, but I don't think so in a democracy or our country where there is freedom of speech," Weisel told CNN in an interview before the hearing.

However, another shooting victim sees it differently than Weisel: Schrade. He is a Kennedy friend who was shot in the forehead while standing immediately behind Robert Kennedy in the pantry.

In 2008, Schrade, now 86, told CNN that he believes evidence clearly shows Sirhan was not the only person who fired shots in that assassination. "We have proof that the second shooter was behind us and off to our right. Sirhan was off to the left and in front of us," Schrade told CNN anchor Adrian Finighan.

Schrade declined to comment to CNN this week about Wednesday's scheduled parole hearing for Sirhan.

Pepper said he was chairman of Kennedy's citizens campaign in Westchester County, New York, during his successful 1964 bid for the U.S. Senate, and Pepper's duties included taking Kennedy's sisters and mother to political events. He said he was also a volunteer in the successful 1960 presidential campaign of Kennedy's brother, John Kennedy.

"I knew Bob Kennedy, and I came on this case reluctantly," Pepper said, explaining he became convinced a second gunman was involved.

In 1999, Pepper represented the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's family in a wrongful death lawsuit concerning King's April 4, 1968, murder and successfully persuaded a Memphis, Tennessee, jury to find Lloyd Jowers responsible as an accomplice in the King assassination.

Sirhan was initially sentenced to death, but three years later that sentence was commuted by California courts to life imprisonment plus six months to 14 years in prison, to run concurrently.