Straight A student

In 1975, the California state legislature moved to introduce fixed sentences and give those on indeterminate life sentences ‘a date certain’ for their release. After deductions for his time in jail during the trial, Sirhan Sirhan was given a parole date of March 1, 1985. Prisoners convicted of first-degree murder had been freed, on average, after eleven years and given Sirhan’s record of good behavior, they couldn’t justify giving him more time because of who he killed. The chairman of the panel told the press he was ‘proud as hell that [they] didn’t search for some bogus reason to deny him…This should prove we don’t have any political prisoners.’

I recently obtained all available transcripts of Sirhan’s parole proceedings and the most surprising to me are the progress review hearings from July 1978 to September 1980 that I’m posting today, the earliest transcripts on record.

Sirhan had a new attorney, George Roberts, who gives a quite brilliant summary of the psychiatric testimony at his trial in the 1978 hearing – how the psychiatric opinion was unanimous in finding Sirhan mentally ill at the time of the shooting and how this should be seen as a mitigating factor in granting Sirhan early parole.

As well as giving a history of Sirhan’s incarceration in the seventies, the transcripts show he was a straight A student at Hartnell College, excelling in a mind-boggling range of classes and going on to get his A.A. degree, despite the less than ideal setting of a protective housing unit. Sirhan was ticking all the right boxes during this period, he was doing everything he could to rehabilitate himself and atone for his crime.

He received laudatory commendations from the prison staff, the prison psychologists and the director of the government-sponsored Project Soledad self-help program. The parole panel seem to be behind him, putting political bias aside and following the law by deducting a further four months for following their instructions in 1979 and a further two months the following year.

The ten-day, politically-motivated rescission hearing in 1982 brought a halt to all this and Sirhan lost all hope in the American justice system. Reading these transcripts over thirty years later, you can’t blame him. As he later told David Frost:

“The system proceeded admirably well after the death sentence…was abolished and when my release date was established. And nothing really would have stopped my release except the political ambitions of a political upstart in Los Angeles named John Van de Kamp, who was district attorney at the time and who wanted to achieve a higher political office, sir…You must distinguish between politics and the rule of law. If you want to say, we want to make a political decision never to let you go, at least, have the courage and tell me that…”

More on the rescission hearings tomorrow.