Sirhan on TV

As media interviews with inmates are banned in California, the only time the public gets to see Sirhan Sirhan is in televised coverage of his parole hearings. In 1994, Court TV broadcast Sirhan’s parole hearing live and I’m posting the closing statements of Sirhan and his attorney Larry Teeter from that broadcast today, followed by the parole board’s predictable decision.

Teeter is continually interrupted as he puts several key points on the record that don’t just challenge the official version of the crime but also speak directly to the key criteria the board sets for considering parole. As Teeter reminds the panel, sentencing guidelines at the time recommended 15-19 years for first-degree murder. After 26 years in prison, Sirhan had already served way beyond this. And now, 22 years later, he’s served three times the recommended term for his crime.

In 1982, KCRA obtained a court order and the Board of Prison Terms allowed closed-circuit cameras to record Sirhan’s parole rescission hearings, and all of his subsequent parole hearings were recorded and briefly televised during news broadcasts until now.

Sirhan Sirhan

Now I hear that since Sirhan’s last hearing in 2011, the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) in California no longer allows video or audio recording of parole hearings, censoring Sirhan’s voice from the continuing debate about his case. The relevant title code in the regulations states the following:

§ 2032. (b) Television and radio coverage of Board of Prison Terms’ parole hearings will be authorized, unless such coverage would create a risk to the security of an institution, obstruct the hearing process, pose a risk to the personal safety of any person, or have the potential for prejudicing judicial proceedings…

I can’t see how any of these apply, given the previous thirty years of televised hearings. So what possible justification can the BPH have for denying the public television and radio access to a case of such historical importance? I asked the BPH this question a week ago and am still awaiting a reply.

Justice and Compassion

Today, I’m posting Sirhan Sirhan’s closing statement from his previous parole hearing in 2011 – abruptly curtailed by the commissioner – followed by a statement from William Weisel, one of the shooting victims, who voiced no objection to Sirhan being paroled.

I’m very pleased to say that Paul Schrade, a close friend of Bobby Kennedy and his family, will attend this year’s hearing. Paul stood beside RFK during his victory speech and then walked behind him into the pantry, where he was shot in the head by Sirhan and his friend Bob was assassinated.

Paul Schrade wounded Q77.25

Now 91, he has led a campaign to reopen the case for over forty years, based on eyewitness evidence that Sirhan could not have fired the fatal shot described in Kennedy’s autopsy and an analysis of the only known audio recording of the shooting which indicates thirteen shots – and two guns – were fired. Paul recently worked with Bobby Kennedy’s family to turn the Ambassador Hotel into the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex and will address Sirhan and the parole board at the end of the hearing.

Both Weisel and Schrade embody the values of justice, understanding and compassion championed by Bobby Kennedy but noticeably lacking in Sirhan’s parole process over the last thirty-four years.

The rule of law

This country is governed by the rule of law, it is not governed by terrorist tactics. Now, if you want to deprive me of my rights under your own established rules and your own laws, at least come out and tell me that outright rather than to tell me that you didn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous programs and on that basis, we’re going to deprive you of your liberty. Tell me that you’re a terrorist and we don’t want you out of our prison, I can live with that. But all these deceptions and devious ways of denying me parole, I don’t think it’s fair.

In the clip above, Sirhan Sirhan responds to being denied parole in 1985, the first of eleven parole hearing transcripts we posted yesterday on the Mary Ferrell Foundation site. Today, we’re posting the transcript of the three-day parole hearing in 1983 below, which completes our set of all available parole hearing transcripts from 1978 to date. For earlier transcripts, see our previous posts.

Parole denied

Sirhan in jail

Today, with the support of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, we’re publishing the transcripts of Sirhan Sirhan’s parole hearings dating back to 1985, so the public can read for themselves what passes for “due process” in this case in California. There are eleven transcripts in all (the 1992 transcript, which Sirhan did not attend, is officially missing). You can find a link to the transcripts and a 2,000 word essay introducing the new collection here.

Parole cancelled

In November 1981, following a petition from L.A. County District Attorney John Van de Kamp, the parole board voted unanimously to consider rescinding 1984 parole date. By sheer coincidence, Van de Kamp was running for state Attorney General that year. Ten days of hearings followed in late April and early May 1982 and on May 22, Sirhan’s parole date was rescinded by the three-member panel.

As reported in the New York Times, the 1975 panel had ‘acted on the understanding that it was obligated to set a parole date for Mr. Sirhan, which it was not’ and had been unaware of two letters containing death threats from Sirhan:

One letter, dated Feb. 24, 1971, was written to Grant Cooper, Mr. Sirhan’s attorney at his 1969 trial. In it Mr. Sirhan wrote of Robert Blair Kaiser, a journalist who worked as an investigator for the defense and wrote a book about Mr. Sirhan: ”If he gets his brains splattered, he will have asked for it like Bobby Kennedy did. Kennedy didn’t scare me. Don’t think that you or Kaiser will.”

In another letter, written in April 1975 to Vern Smith, a prison employee, Mr. Sirhan complained of dental problems. ”When I panic at the loss of my teeth,” he wrote, ”I want you to rest assured that I’m going to kill you” and everyone else who was ”responsible for my continued torture.”

These were isolated outbursts that carried no real threat while Sirhan was in prison but when Kaiser testified on the second day of the 1982 hearing, he was quite spooked by the idea of Sirhan being released. Years later, when we met, he brushed off Sirhan’s note ‘as a piece of literary criticism – he didn’t like my book!’ The temper tantrum of a very frustrated human being, venting on Death Row. ‘Consider the circumstances…’ a regretful Sirhan later told David Frost in the clip below.

32 witnesses were called during the 1982 hearing, with most of the ten days wasted on ludicrous charges brought by the District Attorney’s office – which the panel dismissed – alleging Sirhan had told a rogue’s gallery of present and former convicts and con men that ‘he was involved in an escape plot and…that when released he would assassinate Senator Edward M. Kennedy…and steal plutonium for Libya.’

Today, I’m posting the full transcripts of the 1982 hearings here. The concluding day’s testimony appears below and features closing statements from Deputy D.A. Larry Trapp, Sirhan’s attorney Luke McKissack and Sirhan himself, where he addresses the threatening letters. In an election year, Sirhan didn’t think he had a chance of keeping his parole date but closed with the following:

I have had fourteen years to reflect on human life. I have spent agonising and trying times on death row where the question of life and living was in every thought…No person can feel better or richer in spirit for taking another person’s life. I sincerely believe that if Robert Kennedy were alive today, he would not countenance singling me out for this kind of treatment. I think he would be amongst the first to say that however horrible a deed I committed fourteen years ago, it should not be the cause for denying me equal treatment under the laws of this country.

‘He views himself as a political prisoner, not a political assassin,’ the parole panel concluded and he’s remained a political prisoner ever since. As Larry Trapp told the press after the 1983 hearing, ‘Political assassination in America must never be rewarded by freedom’.