By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
By remarkable coincidence, two notorious political gunmen–Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert Kennedy and John Hinckley, Jr., who shot and almost killed Ronald Reagan, are about to be released after decades of legal confinement. Predictably, there has been an outcry from many in the public about those decisions, as well as by many of the victims’ family members. Given the passage of time, is leniency now owed to these two aging assassins (one successful and one not) whose violent acts shocked the nation? It is worth a look backwards, in order to fairly answer that question.
Sirhan Sirhan killed Senator Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968, just after Kennedy had won the California Democratic presidential primary. Kennedy was shaking hands with staff in the kitchen of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, where his victory celebration was being held. Sirhan ran toward Kennedy from the front and shot him and five others (William Weisel of ABC News, Paul Schrade of the United Automobile Workers union, Democratic Party activist Elizabeth Evans, Ira Goldstein of the Continental News Service, and Kennedy campaign volunteer Irwin Stroll) at close range with a .22 caliber pistol. Kennedy died the next day.
Robert Kennedy’s death was all the more shocking because his own brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been publicly assassinated less than five years earlier. And Martin Luther King, Jr. had been slain only two months earlier, sending America’s cities into turmoil. For an already grieving country, it was one blow too many.
There is no doubt that Robert Kennedy’s murder dramatically changed the course of American history. Like his brother John, Robert was a progressive icon; he opposed the Vietnam War and favored many programs to help poor and working-class people. He had a good chance of winning the Democratic nomination and the coming election against Republican candidate Richard Nixon.
It was not to be. Nixon won the 1968 election, and his attempt to steal our democracy through his Watergate conspiracy and obstruction of its investigation was a precursor to the more open and virulent attacks on democracy we are living through now. And if Robert Kennedy had lived, perhaps we would have continued on the road of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society rather than having those programs largely undone by the succession of Reagan, the Bushes, and conservative so-called “New Democrats.”
As Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe wrote in the Los Angeles Times on August 30, “Sirhan victimized not only the Kennedy family but also the American family. We the people were his victims.”
Sirhan was convicted in April 1969 and sentenced to death. There was no doubt as to his guilt. Sirhan, a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, confessed to killing Kennedy (he could hardly deny it since there were many witnesses), and said, at his trial, that he was motivated by Kennedy’s endorsement of Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War.
But when California subsequently eliminated the death penalty, Sirhan’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. (California has since reinstated the death penalty.) Now 77 years old, Sirhan has been in prison 53 years and has previously been denied parole 15 times.
Apparently, the 16th time was the charm. On August 27, a panel comprised of two parole board commissioners voted in favor of Sirhan’s request for release on parole. The decision must be reviewed by the full parole board within 120 days before it can become final. Then, California Governor Newsom will have 30 days to uphold the decision, reverse it, or send it back to the board. It’s not known what the full parole board will do, and Governor Newsom’s office will not make any statements prejudging the question before it comes to him. But Newsom reportedly has a photo of Robert Kennedy in his office and sees him as one of his personal heroes.
On March 30, 1981, John W. Hinckley, Jr. opened fire outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C, and shot President Ronald Reagan, White House press secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy J. McCarthy, and police officer Thomas K. Delahanty. Reagan suffered injury to a lung, and internal bleeding, but survived. The other three also survived, but James Brady suffered brain damage and was permanently disabled. When he died in 2014, a medical examiner ruled it a homicide stemming from his gunshot wound.
Shortly after Hinckley shot President Reagan, he said that he had done it to get the attention of actress Jodie Foster, whom he had been stalking. After watching the 1976 Robert DeNiro-Jodie Foster movie Taxi Driver, Hinckley had developed an obsession with Foster who, in 1981, was a freshman at Yale University. Hinckley had been pursuing her—even moving to New Haven and trying to contact her by letters and by phone. His attempt to assassinate Reagan was apparently an emulation of the DeNiro character’s deranged plotting to assassinate a politician.
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The verdict was immediately controversial and led to changes in the law making it more difficult to use an insanity defense.
Hinckley was committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental institution in Washington, D.C. He remained there until 2016, when the court granted him leave to live full-time with his mother in Williamsburg, Va. The court-ordered conditions of that release were that he must receive regular doctor supervision and psychiatric care; not own a gun; have no contact with Reagan’s children, other victims or their families, or actress Jodie Foster.
Hinckley has apparently obeyed the conditions. On September 27, U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman said he plans to remove Hinckley, now 66 years old, from all court supervision in June 2022, assuming Hinckley remains mentally stable and continues to follow court-issued rules between now and then.
At the hearing, the judge said, “If he hadn’t tried to kill the president, he would have been unconditionally released a long, long, long time ago…But everybody is comfortable now after all the studies, all of the analysis and all of the interviews, and all of the experience with Mr. Hinckley.”
The Victims’ Families Weigh In:
It is not true, though, that everybody is comfortable with the release of either Sirhan or Hinckley. The families of the victims are divided on the subject.
Six of Robert Kennedy’s nine children have opposed Sirhan’s release, issuing a statement: “We are devastated that the man who murdered our father has been recommended for parole.” They added, “We adamantly oppose the parole and release of Sirhan Sirhan and are shocked by a ruling that we believe ignores the standards of parole of a confessed, first-degree murderer in the state of California.” They urged the Parole Board and Governor Newsom to reverse the panel’s recommendation.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert Kennedy’s daughter and former Maryland lieutenant-governor, has been silent on Sirhan’s release.
Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, now 93, was measured but pained. She issued a statement: “Our family and our country suffered an unspeakable loss due to the inhumanity of one man. We believe in the gentleness that spared his life, but in taming his act of violence, he should not have the opportunity to terrorize again.”
On the other hand, Douglas Kennedy, who was a toddler when his father was assassinated, was moved, in a fit of forgiveness after meeting with Sirhan, to support his parole request.
Robert Kennedy, Jr. submitted a letter to the board supporting Sirhan’s parole request based on discrepancies in the evidence he felt suggested a second shooter’s bullets were the ones that killed his father.
However, the courts have sided with experts who argue that a second gunman was unlikely, especially considering no witness recalls seeing another shooter in that crowded hotel kitchen. And given that Sirhan came with a gun and intent, if his bullets were not the ones that hit Kennedy, it was not for lack of trying. Sirhan’s last judge ruled that even if there were a second gunman, Sirhan was rightfully convicted as “an aider and abettor” in the murder.
As to Hinckley’s freedom, one of Reagan’s sons, Michael, posted on Twitter that his father forgave Hinckley and would approve, and therefore “so do I.”
On the other hand, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing Hinckley's release and expressing fear that he now could contact her. She wrote, "I don’t believe that John Hinckley feels remorse.”
In addition, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute issued a statement: “Contrary to the judge’s decision, we believe John Hinckley is still a threat to others and we strongly oppose his release…Our hope is that the Justice Department will file a motion with the court leading to a reversal of the decision.”
Should Either Sirhan Sirhan or John Hinckley Jr. Be Released?
There are a number of compelling reasons Sirhan should be denied parole and Hinckley should not have been permitted supervised freedom, let alone the unsupervised freedom he has just been granted.
First, as Prof. Tribe wrote in his Los Angeles Times article, “our justice system demands the strictest punishment for the most atrocious crimes.” He added, “political assassination stands nearly alone in its threat to the foundation of society—it is a crime against our republic as much as against an individual.” In addition, Tribe stated, “Vitriolic as our political disagreements can be, we are a nation bound by the rule of law, not the rule of a revolver.”
Tribe also argued that, where the crime is against the nation, the views of the victim’s family–as sympathetic as we may be—do not have a special claim to be heard.
I agree—especially in today’s climate, when so many think they have the right to change our government by violence rather than votes. If ever there were a time to treat a life sentence as a deterrence to such action, this is it.
Even if the more usual considerations of taking responsibility, remorse, reformation, and whether the person is no longer a danger to the community were applied, the sincerity of both men’s claim to meet these standards is highly questionable.
Sirhan originally told the trial court that his prime motivation for killing Kennedy was a deep animosity towards Israel and that, since Kennedy supported Israel, he must be eliminated. Subsequently, he has claimed that he had been drinking and doesn’t remember that night. But according to USA Today, he has recalled events before and after the shooting in detail, including going to a shooting range, drinking coffee in a hotel pantry before, and being choked and unable to breathe when being taken into custody after. At his 2016 hearing, Sirhan said he felt remorse for any crime victim but couldn’t take responsibility for the shooting. So much for taking responsibility.
This time around, Sirhan used pro forma words that apparently appealed to the parole board panel: “Over half a century has passed, and that young, impulsive kid I was does not exist anymore. … Senator Kennedy was the hope of the world and I injured, and I harmed all of them, and it pains me to experience that, the knowledge for such a horrible deed.”
And yet, when asked whether he would kill again—why would anyone seeking parole say yes?—Sirhan said, “I would never put myself in jeopardy again.”
That statement signifies no real change in his character. He doesn’t say he would never want to put others in jeopardy again, but that he would not put himself in jeopardy again—his jeopardy being trial and prison, or execution. So, in asking the state for parole, Sirhan thinks only of himself, and not at all of his victims, past or potential.
Sirhan never obtained U.S. citizenship and so could be deported to Jordan, where he is a citizen. Board Commissioner Robert Barton expressed concern that if released and deported to Jordan, Sirhan might become a “symbol or lightning rod to foment more violence.”
In reply, Sirhan suggested, “The same argument can be said or made that I can be a peacemaker and a contributor to a friendly nonviolent way of resolving the issue.” But one must ask whether Sirhan has done or said anything in the last 53 years to indicate he would become a peacemaker?
Commissioner Barton asked whether Sirhan follows the Middle East conflict and his feelings about it. Sirhan claimed he did not follow the situation but thinks about the suffering of refugees. He broke down, and then, recovering, said he felt "the misery that those people are experiencing. It's painful." He called them "kindred," and said he wouldn't be human if their plight didn't move him, adding, "Although whatever I would want to do in the future, it would be towards resolving that peacefully."
He also said he is too old to be involved in the Middle East conflict and would detach himself from it. But that statement goes to his perceived capability, not to a change in thinking about his approach to the situation. And these somewhat contradictory statements about what his post-release involvement might be have the feel of someone trying to reach for the magic words to please the panel.
One should not take Sirhan—or anyone else in his situation—at their word. One should ask what the person has done with his time in prison to support the view that these words represent the change claimed.
Commissioner Barton said, “We think you have grown.” One could reasonably ask, based on what?
In finding that Sirhan no longer poses a threat to society, the panel noted his enrollment in anger management classes, Tai Chi, and Alcoholics Anonymous. Although these may speak to an effort at personal improvement, they don’t suggest remorse or an effort at redemption demonstrating true growth and change of heart.
Likewise, though Hinckley may not have had the same kind of political motivation concerning a cause that Sirhan had, he would not have attempted the assassination of Reagan if Reagan were not the President—which makes the attempt a political act. Unlike Sirhan, however Hinckley did have the possibly extenuating circumstance of mental illness.
In his gradual movement towards full independence, Hinckley has gone from supervised visits, to living with his mother under certain restrictions to now being allowed to live independently without any court supervision.
While under supervision, Hinckley had to work and volunteer at least three days a week or be reported to the authorities if he failed to show up. He had to live with his mother. He also was prohibited from being in the same area as current presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress or other senior officials, or having contact with Jodie Foster or family members of Reagan, Brady, or other victims. and was not allowed to have social media accounts without the unanimous consent of his treatment team.
The lifting of these restrictions has been delayed until June, 2022 because Hinckley’s mother died in August and he is living on his own for the first time in 40 years. In addition, one of his primary doctors is retiring and disbanding his therapy group, so he will have to find a new doctor and group. Allegedly, the delay will permit observation of whether and how Hinckley adjusts. But once the transitional monitoring is complete, Hinckley will no longer have to abide by these restrictions.
Hinckley’s attorney, Barry Levine, claims that Hinckley’s “mental disease is in full, stable and complete remission and has been so for over three decades.” Levine maintains that a violence risk assessment in 2020 concluded that Hinckley would not pose a danger if he were released unconditionally from court-ordered restrictions.
Hinckley currently lives in Williamsburg and goes to therapy, but what’s to ensure that he continues to do so once the conditions are removed? Levine has claimed Hinckley’s unconditional release is a victory for mental health: “That is the real message in this case — that people who have been ravaged by mental disease, with good support and access to treatment, can actually become productive members of society."
But most people suffering from mental health problems do not try to kill other people. Most are themselves the sufferers. And to present Hinckley’s so-called “remission” (remission is not cure) as representative of people with mental health problems in general could be used to tar anyone having such problems with Hinckley’s brush.
Both of these men appear more concerned with getting on with their lives than with making whatever amends are possible for the lives they have taken or damaged.
Despite the fact that Sirhan deprived another human being—and the nation—of his future, Sirhan seems to have the attitude that he has paid enough and should be entitled to get on with his own life. I don’t see remorse or an effort that comes with remorse to make some attempt at redemption, even if in the form of paying it forward to others.
And no matter how sane Judge Friedman may think Hinckley is, if I were Patti Davis or Jodie Foster, I’d be very nervous about the removal of supervised conditions limiting his movements and contacts.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s would-be lawyer Portia says, “the quality of mercy is not strained.” But in this instance, I believe the quality of mercy should be constrained. So, on the question of whether either of these men should be completely freed to get on with their lives, my vote is a big no.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.