As reported at the International Herald Tribune:
Susan Atkins was a leading character in one of the most horrific chapters in California history.
On Tuesday, the former follower of Charles Manson sought to end her story on her own terms: by being allowed to go home. The state parole board denied that request.
Atkins, convicted in the slayings of the actress Sharon Tate and others in 1969, is dying of brain cancer and asked that she be granted compassionate release from prison.
Her husband, James Whitehouse, argued that she was so debilitated that she could not even sit up in bed. “She literally can’t snap her fingers,” he said. “She can put sentences together three or four times a day, but that’s the extent of it.”
As reported at the LA Times:
Now ill with brain cancer, with one leg amputated and the other paralyzed, Atkins has only months to live, doctors have said.
Ok, so let’s take a look at what we have here. I found this case very interesting and challenging. How do you properly balance our innate instinct of revenge with our other innate instinct of compassion? How should these feelings play, if at all, in the state’s decisions and actions? Those are the questions that I keep pondering without being able to find a satisfactory answer either way.
On the one hand we have a frail old woman, ravaged by cancer, one leg amputated who has very little time left to live. She’s not asking for forgiveness for what she’s done, all she’s asking is that these horrible circumstance be taken into account and she be granted a little bit of leniency. Are we as a society at a point in our development where feelings of revenge overpower feelings of compassion and leniency? It looks like the answer to that question is an emphatic yes, and that saddens me.
The state should not be in the business of revenge. That is one of the main reasons why I oppose the death penalty. Either way, the state is supposed to be an unbiased, impartial third party. The way I see it, imprisonment should be viewed not as punishment, but as removal of violent individuals from society in order to prevent them from committing other crimes. From this point of view it is hard to see how an argument about this lady “not deserving” to be let go makes any sense. Such argument is fueled by our feelings of revenge, and while it is acceptable at a personal level, it cannot be acceptable when the state is involved. Alas, the state is made up of individuals who bring in their own prejudices. There is really no way to escape that.
Pam Turner, a cousin of Sharon Tate, recalled the pregnant actress’ return to the United States, and dreaming of helping her with her baby.
Then she spoke about wanting to die after finding out that Tate and her unborn son had been stabbed to death.
“I was a child, but I was so sick with grief that I wished I too could die,” Turner said, sobbing. She described how Tate’s mother, her aunt, “howled like a wounded animal.”
And she recalled how her late aunt had been overcome with emotion when Turner became pregnant herself.
“She once put her hands on my pregnant belly and just cried,” she said. “She didn’t have to say what she was crying for. I knew. She was looking right through me and seeing Sharon and what could have been.”
The pain and grief are undeniable. But how does denying this sick, dying person parole lessen the pain in any way possible? Is it going to undo what happened? Are those feelings that this lady felt years ago going to vanish, erased from her memory? I am sure this lady will feel a little better after parole was denied, but the State itself is not supposed to have feelings. But if that was the case, then the prisoner couldn’t make the case for clemency either, now could she? I told you I had mixed feelings about this.
So on the one hand, I think that, given the circumstances mercy is warranted. I think every human being has some dignity by virtue of being human, regardless of their crimes. That is why I oppose the death penalty and that is why I think that under these circumstances, it hurts no one to grant this women parole.
On the other hand though we must worry about the precedent this would set. Does that make it acceptable for anyone on their death bed to ask for mercy? What if it is not such a clear cut case? What if instead of impending death within a few months, you have a longer period of time? Where do you draw the line?
However, besides the practical issue, I see another bigger issue. That of the whole idea of the life sentence. The point of the life sentence is that the person end their life in prison. Lifting the life sentence for a dying person, defeats the purpose of having it at all. Dying is a painful, horrible process cancer or not. If we make an exception for her, why not for a really old and frail person? If that was the case then we should do away with the life sentence altogether, and I don’t like that idea.
Confused yet? Good because i am myself. I don’t have a clear answer to this question, but if I had my shoulders to the wall, like the members of the panel did, I most likely would have voted to grant her parole. People it is better to be compassionate and forgiving than vengeful. I know I sound like a televangelist, but hey I’m not asking for you money!