US parole board votes to release Robert F Kennedy's assassin

Sirhan Sirhan's release will now be reviewed in the debated case

Sirhan Sirhan at a parole hearing on August 27, 2021, in San Diego. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via AP

The man convicted of shooting Robert F Kennedy in June 1968 was granted parole on Friday.

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, now 77, had on 15 occasions asked to be released from the life sentence imposed nearly five decades earlier.

The vote on Friday by a two-person panel of the California parole board does not mean that Sirhan will automatically be released.

The decision is subject to a three-month review, and then passes to Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who faces a recall vote in September.

Kennedy, the younger brother of president John F Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, was campaigning for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination when he was fatally injured in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen.

His murder came just months after the killing of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, and as a divided America was deep in an unpopular war in Vietnam.

Sirhan was convicted and sentenced to death by a California court in 1969 after pleading guilty to the murder. His death sentence was commuted to life in a wave of commutations that followed a 1972 Supreme Court decision to overturn the death penalty.

Doubts quickly surfaced that he was responsible for Kennedy's death, with claims that there could have been another gunman in the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968.

Kennedy had given a speech to a crowd at the hotel after winning California's Democratic presidential primary.

His way from the conference suite, Kennedy entered a kitchen where he met staff. He was shot, along with several other people – among them friend and aide Paul Schrade, who suffered a head wound.

In this June 5, 1968 photo, Senator Robert F Kennedy addresses campaign workers moments before being shot in Los Angeles. AP

Mr Schrade, as well as Kennedy's then-14-year-old son, have since campaigned for Sirhan's release, saying the evidence against him does not stack up.

"It is a good decision," Mr Schrade told AFP on Friday. "I'm really grateful to the parole board for giving Sirhan the chance to go home."

The controversy over Sirhan's guilt began during his trial, when prosecutors produced an autopsy report that showed Kennedy was shot at point-blank range from behind.

Sirhan was standing in front of him.

Over the years and in numerous appeals, evidence has emerged that as many as 13 shots were fired in the kitchen that night.

The weapon Sirhan was found to have fired contained eight bullets.

The controversy has echoes of the 1963 killing of John F Kennedy, where researchers said more than one gunman was involved, contradicting the findings of a 1964 presidential commission.

Updated: August 28, 2021, 12:01 PM