COALINGA, Calif. — Parole officials have refused to give Sirhan Sirhan a date with freedom, saying he hasn't shown sufficient remorse for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's death or understand the enormity of the assassination that changed U.S. history more than 40 years ago.
During four intense hours Wednesday in a prison's small hearing room, Sirhan told board officials of his regret but also said he could not remember the events of June 5, 1968.
"I don't remember pulling a gun from my body. I don't remember aiming it at any human being. Everything was always hazy in my head," Sirhan said. "I don't remember anything very clearly....I'm not trying to evade anything."
Sirhan said he underwent hypnosis at his lawyer's behest but still did not remember shooting Kennedy or five other victims in the crowded kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles where Kennedy stood moments after claiming victory in the California presidential primary.
"Every day of my life, I have great remorse and deep regret," he told the panel at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga. He said a psychologist told him years ago to stop dwelling on it or he would never heal.
The two-member panel of the California parole board determined that Kennedy's convicted assassin hadn't shown enough remorse and didn't understand the severity of a crime that was mourned by a nation four decades ago.
Sirhan, now 66, with graying hair and a missing front tooth, appeared cheerful at the outset, bidding the commissioners "good afternoon." He spoke more than he has since his trial, a departure from his 12 previous parole hearings where he rarely spoke and sometimes refused to appear.
Sirhan emphasized he's a practicing Christian who attends services every Sunday. He said he was put in solitary confinement at the Central California prison after he became a target of hatred following the Sept. 11 attacks. Fellow inmates thought he was a Muslim, he said.
He pleaded with the panel to give him a release date, saying he was willing to accept deportation to his native Jordan. He said no one in his family is involved in politics and he suggested he wouldn't be either if he was released.
"I want to live, get lost in the woodwork and live out my life with my community," he said.
But the panel chairman, Mike Prizmich, and the deputy commissioner, Randy Kevorkian, told Sirhan he must seek further self-help courses, come to terms with the shooting and show evidence of his improvement by his next parole hearing, which would be in five years.
"The magnitude of this crime is one that a nation mourned over, and from that day on, politicians changed the way they interacted with people," Prizmich said.
He noted the impact on the Kennedy family, which had endured another tragedy five years before with the killing of President John F. Kennedy.
At that point, Sirhan interjected, "That's not my responsibility."
The commissioner cut him off.
"In this way, interrupting me indicates a lack of control of yourself," he said.
Sirhan's attorney, William F. Pepper, told the panel he took on Sirhan's case after his former lawyer died because he became convinced that Sirhan did not fire the fatal shot . He has said he believes a second gunman was involved and Sirhan may have been brainwashed.
Prizmich asked why during his trial Sirhan made self incriminating statements. Pepper said everyone had told him he was guilty, even his own lawyers.
Harvard psychologist, Daniel Brown who hypnotized Sirhan and conducted extensive interviews with him for the past three years, concluded in a report that he has amnesia about the Kennedy shooting and other segments of his life.
The parole panel acknowledged that Brown and a prison psychologist concluded that Sirhan has a low risk of violent behavior in the future.
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney David Dahle disagreed.
"We believe Sirhan Sirhan released would still pose a substantial danger to the public," said Dahle. He said Sirhan has an anger problem and listed incidents dating back to the 1970s when he was first incarcerated.
Dahle suggested that although the crime was not supposed to be retried at the hearing, the killing of a presidential candidate during a primary was one of of the darkest chapters of Los Angeles County history.
"Standing on its own, it's sufficient to find him unsuitable for parole," Dahle said
Sirhan was originally sentenced to death over objections by Kennedy family members who said they wanted no more killing. The sentence was commuted to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court briefly outlawed the death penalty in 1972.
Outside the prison, Pepper said he was planning further legal actions on Sirhan's behalf.
"This is an ongoing story" he said. "We're not going to let him rot in here for a crime he didn't commit."