RFK and the California Death Penalty

One of history’s most infamous assassins could soon be released from a California prison, just as debates about crime and punishment take on a larger role in the state’s gubernatorial recall election.

Tom Jackman reports for the Washington Post:

Sirhan B. Sirhan, convicted of the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, will face a California parole board for the 16th time Friday in a prison outside San Diego. But unlike the first 15 times, no prosecutor will stand to oppose the release of Sirhan, who is now 77.

Sirhan was arrested at the scene of Kennedy’s shooting in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for the assassination of a U.S. senator who appeared headed for the Democratic presidential nomination. The assassination, along with that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. two months earlier, created a turning point in American history with the sudden elimination of the charismatic leaders of the American civil rights movement and the Democratic Party.

When California abolished the death penalty, Sirhan’s sentence was reduced to life with the possibility of parole. And now Sirhan, who has been incarcerated for 53 years, may benefit from a new push among progressive prosecutors to seek the release, or not oppose the release, of convicts who have served decades behind bars, no longer pose a threat to society and will be costly to treat medically in their later years.

But has California really abolished the death penalty? Sirhan’s sentence was reduced in 1972 when the state’s supreme court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional. But within months California voters amended the state constitution to maintain the death penalty. Several iterations later, capital punishment is still on the books.

Yet Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democrat now facing a recall election, claimed to have the authority to impose a moratorium on the death penalty when he issued an order in 2019. Many of the state’s voters still don’t think the order was lawful.

In the Los Angeles Times in May Phil Willon noted that “over the last decade, California voters have twice rejected ballot measures to abolish the death penalty, first in 2012 and again in 2016. In fact, voters in 2016 approved a ballot measure, Proposition 66, to fast-track executions in California.” Added Mr. Willon:

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