Sirhan Found Fit for Parole

Sirhan Sirhan was deservedly sentenced to death for the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Regrettably, a double hit of judicial activism struck in 1972, saving him and many others from their deserved punishments. In February of that year, the California Supreme Court declared that capital punishment violated the California Constitution, brushing off the inconvenient truth that the constitutional convention had debated and voted on the precise question and decided it the other way.

A few months later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the way nearly all capital punishment statutes at the time gave wide-open discretion to the jury violated the United States Constitution. Only a year earlier, the high court had decided 6-3, in a thorough and scholarly opinion by Justice Harlan: “In light of history, experience, and the present limitations of human knowledge, we find it quite impossible to say that committing to the untrammeled discretion of the jury the power to pronounce life or death in capital cases is offensive to anything in the Constitution.” Had the Constitution been amended in the interim? No.

California had no life-without-parole alternative at the time, so all the death row inmates got life with parole, including Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. But surely no parole board would actually let either of these two out, considering the magnitude of their crimes, right?

Manson was never paroled and died in prison. But the primary step toward paroling Sirhan was taken today, Julie Watson and Brian Melley report for AP.

The ruling by the two-person panel at Sirhan’s 16th parole hearing will be reviewed over the next 90 days by the California Parole Board’s staff. Then it will be sent to the governor, who will have 30 days to decide whether to grant it, reverse it or modify it.

The District Attorney did not oppose the release, unlike all his predecessors. His view is that present dangerousness is the sole criterion for release with no regard at all for the magnitude of the crime. From that premise, he reasons that the DA’s office has no relevant information to add. Two of RFK’s sons spoke in favor of release, apparently based on the same reasoning.

But that reasoning is simplistic, and its premise is mistaken. Punishment serves multiple purposes, and the magnitude of the crime matters a great deal.

Incapacitation is one purpose, but only one. Locking people up in prison prevents most of them from committing crimes against victims on the outside, although some continue to commit crimes by proxy. I will assume for the sake of argument that the 77-year-old Sirhan is not a threat. Does it necessarily follow that he should be paroled? No.

Deterrence is another purpose. What message does it send that one can assassinate an American presidential candidate, alter the course of history, and eventually walk free again? The right message would have been sent by executing him back in the 70s, but actually releasing him sends a much worse message than keeping him locked up until natural death. Deterrence is exceptionally difficult to measure, and anyone who tells you it has been proved or disproved is either ignorant or lying. Common sense and basic principles of human behavior tell us that the cost or penalty for doing anything has an effect on the number of people willing to do it, and unless and until that is empirically disproved in the case of punishment for crime we should operate on that principle. Is it possible that at least one person will commit an assassination in the next 30 years because of this case? Certainly. Would it be worth keeping this killer, who deserved death as a matter of justice, locked up for life to prevent that one? Definitely.

Finally, there is the intangible but nonetheless important factor that is sometimes called retribution but I prefer to call just plain justice. It is fundamentally wrong for the perpetrator of this crime to walk free. Letting criminals off too easy has an insidious but real corrosive effect on our society. When people believe that our society is not just they feel less obligated to obey its rules. That voluntary observance of agreed standards of behavior is what holds us together and makes us civilized. The less such observance we have, the more we must resort to force.

So will Sirhan actually be released? It may depend on who is Governor of California several months hence. The recall race is too close to call. Stay tuned.