In writing about Charles Manson follower and convicted murderer Susan Atkins, and her attempt to get out of prison on “compassionate release,” my friend Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman reminds us what justice is, or at least should be, about:
Even her prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, endorsed the idea. “She’s already paid substantially for her crime, close to 40 years behind bars,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “She has terminal cancer. The mercy she was asking for is so minuscule.”
But the parole board unanimously refused. No doubt the board members recalled that in a 1993 parole hearing, Atkins acknowledged that when she had her own opportunity to grant clemency, she chose not to. Tate begged Atkins to spare her baby, to no avail.
“Compassionate release” already has a bad name in this country because it was the basis for Scotland’s decision to free the only person convicted in the 1988 airline bombing over Lockerbie, which killed 270 people. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was serving a life sentence but, afflicted with terminal prostate cancer, was sent home to Libya to live out his remaining time on Earth.
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill defended the decision by saying, “Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion available.” He noted that the killer “now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.”
If we are going to rely on the Almighty in these matters, though, I would prefer that pleas for clemency from convicted killers also be addressed to Him. The truth is we are all going to die, and if we prefer not to do it in prison, we have the option of not committing crimes whose punishment might get in the way of our last wishes.
People who commit a monstrous crime should do their time and spare the rest of us a request for the sort of compassion that they refused to grant others. The purpose of punishment is to, well, punish. In the case of Susan Atkins (and Abdel Baset al-Megrahi), she deserves to be punished until her last breath in this world.