Sirhan Sirhan 'in Disbelief' Over Being Granted Parole 53 Years After RFK Assassination, Says Lawyer

"It was very heartening," Sirhan Sirhan's attorney Angela Berry tells PEOPLE after her client received support from two of Robert F. Kennedy's sons in Friday's parole hearing

Sirhan Sirhan arrives for a parole hearing, in San Diego. Sirhan faces his 16th parole hearing Friday for fatally shooting U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968
Sirhan Sirhan. Photo: Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock

Sirhan Bushara Sirhan, who was convicted of Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 murder, is "in disbelief" after officials voted to grant him parole on Friday.

More than 52 years after he was sentenced to death (which was commuted to a life sentence when capital punishment was outlawed in California), the 77-year-old's 16th request for parole was approved by a two-person panel. "He's happy. He's just trying to still process it," Sirhan's attorney Angela Berry tells PEOPLE.

Although six of Kennedy's children decried the decision, Sirhan's case was bolstered by two of the late senator's sons, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Douglas Kennedy. Sirhan and Robert Jr. met in December 2017 ahead of the 50th anniversary of his father's assassination. "They spoke for about three hours, and Robert Kennedy has been outspoken about his support for Sirhan over the years," Berry recalls.

"The two sat together. They held hands. I mean, they were face-to-face. Sirhan cried. Robert Jr. accepted his apology. ... At that point, Robert Jr. was convinced that there is way more to the story than what came out at trial and that there could be a second gunman, and he has been on Sirhan's side since."

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The support from Douglas, who was a toddler when his father died in 1968, turned out to be a welcomed surprise for Sirhan, as he and Berry were notified a day before the hearing that Kennedy's youngest son would make an appearance.

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan

"I'm overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr. Sirhan face-to-face," Douglas said in the virtual hearing, according to the Associated Press. "I think I've lived my life both in fear of him and his name in one way or another. And I am grateful today to see him as a human being worthy of compassion and love."

Although Berry says that Robert Jr. thought Douglas would also be in support of Sirhan's parole, she adds that his testimony was "sort of a wild card," as he "has not been part of this discourse at all."

"I think it was very heartening to Sirhan to hear that Douglas Kennedy did see his humanity and as somebody who was deserving redemption and release because of his rehabilitation," Berry explains.

After Sirhan's parole was approved Friday, the California Parole Board's staff has 120 days to review a transcript of the hearing and make a recommendation to Governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom, who is currently facing a recall election on Sept. 14, will have 30 days to uphold, reverse or modify the decision.

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"The law says if somebody is no longer a danger to society, they must be released," Barry notes. "So if we stick to the law, then the governor should go along with it."

Under a new directive by Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, parole is the presumption, which means that a prisoner cannot be denied parole unless it is found they are a current danger to society. "It really gave the board no other choice than to grant or make a suitability finding," says Berry.

"And so that's where we focused on, all of the positive programming he's been doing over the last 52 years, but specifically over the last five years, since his last denial," she adds.

Additionally, Sirhan is eligible for youth offender parole, which took effect in its current form in January 2018, applying to inmates who were under the age of 26 when they committed their crime (Sirhan was 24). He also qualifies for the elderly parole program, which was modified last September to apply to inmates over 50 years old who have been incarcerated for at least 20 years.

"He has a lot of physical ailments that are related to his age, and those became relevant for this elderly prisoner release consideration," Berry explains. "And quite frankly, it's not fair to the taxpayers to be paying to treat somebody with all of these ailments, particularly when they're no longer a risk to society."

Robert F Kennedy
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Sen. Kennedy, who served as the 64th attorney general before being elected to represent New York in the U.S. Senate, was mortally wounded in a shooting on the night of June 4, 1968. After winning the presidential primaries in California and South Dakota that day, he was shot in the kitchen of The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while leaving a campaign event at the hotel's ballroom.

According to an Evening Journal report at the time, Kennedy died at "1:44 a.m., PDT, little more than 25 hours after the assault." He was 42.

Sirhan was convicted of first-degree murder in 1969 and was sentenced to death. However, his sentence was commuted to life in prison three years later when the California Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment.

"I would never put myself in jeopardy again," Sirhan said during Friday's hearing, according to the AP. "You have my pledge. I will always look to safety and peace and non-violence."

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