Thursday, September 3, 2009

A time to heal? Nah!

Some years ago, when I was arguing with a prosecutor about the virtues of life without parole over the death penalty (not a happy choice, certainly, but the cases are what they are), he complained that our prisons are turning into geriatric wards and that any cost savings in keeping people imprisoned forever rather than killing them would be eaten up by the medical expenses.

I suggested an alternative: "Let them out. What, exactly, is the point behind keeping the comatose behind bars?" (OK, I didn't really ask that question, but I did say, "Let them out." Keeping the frail and dying in custody just because it's permitted . . . . Well, what's the point? There are common provisions for "compassionate parole" or "medical commutation" or some such thing just because of that. But then there's our need to be tough.

Consider Susan Atkins. She was part of Charles Manson's so-called "family." She admitted stabbing Sharon Tate 40 years ago in the horrific Helter Skelter killings. She's dying of brain cancer. (A year ago, she was told she had just a few months to live.) She had a leg amputated last year. The other leg is paralyzed. She has been a model prisoner, known for helping other inmates. And, to confirm that prosecutor's point (though she's not geriatric), it costs California $17,000 a year in medical expenses to keep her locked up.

So, yesterday was her latest parole hearing. (She'd already been denied compassionate release.) Her lawyer, speaking on her behalf, was apparently eloquent. Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put Manson and his followers behind bars, said last month that enough is enough. He told the Los Angeles Times, that it was wrong to say,
just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her.
She's already paid substantially for her crime, close to 40 years behind bars. She has terminal cancer. The mercy she was asking for is so minuscule. She's about to die. It's not like we're going to see her down at Disneyland.
But you see, we aren't yet done with vengeance. Tate's sister told the Parole Board,
I will pray for her soul when she draws her last breath, but until then I think she should remain in this controlled situation.
Why, exactly? To what end?

The Parole Board voted unanimously to deny parole. The NY Times reports that
Parole commissioner Tim O'Hara said that he and the other commissioner who presided over the hearing, Jan Enloe, based their decision heavily on the ''atrocious nature'' of the 1969 killings and said that Atkins never fully understood the magnitude of her crimes.
She never did. Now perhaps she can't. Throw away the key.

The idea behind mercy is that it's a gift, not an earned reward. The same for compassion. Or so you'd think.


  1. Little quibble: Bugliosi said that it was wrong to say "just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her."

    Mercy reflects on the donor, not on the recipient.

  2. Damn, hate when I skip those little words. You're right, of course, and I'm correcting the post.