SOLEDAD, Calif. — The state parole board turned down Sirhan B. Sirhan's latest bid for freedom Wednesday--but the possibility of a legal challenge was raised when the panel's deliberations were accidentally overheard by newsmen.
Rudolph Castro, chairman of the three-member California Board of Prison Terms panel that handled the case, had just announced the decision denying parole for the slayer of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy when he was informed that a microphone in the hearing room had been left on during the private discussion.
Because of the large number of newsmen interested in the case, reporters had been allowed to view Sirhan's appearance via closed-circuit television in an adjoining room.
Although the camera was turned off when the board went into executive session to consider the case, someone evidently forgot to disconnect the microphone.
The reporters in the other room listened, intrigued, as the panel swiftly rejected parole for Sirhan. After three minutes' general conversation, Castro moved to deny parole and the others concurred. Then the panel turned its attention to Sirhan's application for transfer to a prison in Southern California where he could be nearer his family.
The reporters heard the panel decide to grant Sirhan's request for a transfer from Soledad, where he has been for 10 years, to the California Men's Colony at San Luis Obispo.
"We'll send his ass down there for as long as possible," a member of the panel--whose voice could not be readily identified--was heard to say.
At the new prison, the panel members speculated, it might be possible to place Sirhan in the general population rather than in an isolated protective custody unit as had been the case at Soledad.
Finally, about five minutes into their deliberations, panel members were heard discussing whether the microphone was still on.
"Let's make sure the sound is off," one panel member said.
"That is really important, or the whole world will know," said another.
A moment later, the microphone was switched off.
After another 50 minutes, Castro came out to announce the panel's decisions.
Asked how long it had taken the board to decide on Sirhan's parole, he said the deliberations had lasted for three quarters of an hour--but fell silent when faced by the news that the reporters had been listening to the whole thing, and the actual discussion had taken just three minutes.
When reporters renewed their questions, Castro replied:
"On advice of counsel, I am curtailing further discussion on this."
David E. Brown, the parole board's legal counsel, also declined comment when newsmen asked him to explain the panel's legal position. But Sirhan's lawyer, Luke McKissack, was more talkative.
"I'm dumbfounded," he said. "I plan to immediately see what legal steps might be taken to set aside the board's action today."
And Sirhan, seated next to McKissack, expressed his own indignation.
"This," he said, "tends to corroborate or validate my suspicions that I really had no chance of getting a fair hearing from these political lackeys."
McKissack said he was undecided whether to ask the parole board to undo its own ruling or seek a court order to erase Wednesday's action.
"One thing I do know for certain after listening to a recording of what reporters overheard," McKissack said, "and that is that these three guys did not meaningfully and maturely deliberate their decision. They have put the American justice system on trial."
'The Right Decision'
Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Trapp, who represented the prosecution at the hearing, said, "Regardless of how much time they deliberated, I think they came up with the right decision."
In an open part of the hearing, before the executive session, Castro called the 1968 assassination "an attack on the democratic system of government (which) with three shots disenfranchised millions of people."
"Sirhan still does not accept the enormity of his crime," Castro added.
Panel members Joseph Aceto and Ray Hauregui joined Castro in suggesting that Sirhan needs to develop a marketable skill and participate in self-help programs to prepare him for future release.
Board members made it clear that they questioned the sincerity of Sirhan's expressions of remorse and doubted his "partial amnesia" about the assassination.
Before starting their deliberations, the board members reviewed Sirhan's history both before and after going to prison, including a recent prison psychiatrist's evaluation that he has become "an exemplary prisoner with no predilection toward violence at this time."
They also heard Sirhan tearfully plead for his release to return to his homeland in Jordan. "I am not interested in being a troublemaker anymore," he said.
He repeatedly said he was sorry for killing Kennedy and at the conclusion of his statement said "I wish it had never occurred, for the Kennedys' sake, and for my own."
This was the seventh parole hearing for Sirhan, and the second since his scheduled 1984 release date was canceled three years ago. That date had been granted in 1975, but then-Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp successfully petitioned the Board of Prison Terms to rescind its action on grounds that it had not properly considered death threats made by Sirhan against a writer and a prison counselor.