Friday, September 25, 2009


So now she's dead.

I'm speaking of Susan Atkins. You know. Member of so-called "Manson family" of killers. Model prisoner. Sentenced to die for her part in the 1969 Tate-LoBianco murders. Had her death sentence reduced to life as a member of the Furman class of 1972. Born again Christian. Married for 21 years.

A year and a half ago, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Sixteen months ago, she was told she had six months to live. Denied "compassionate release" from prison fourteen months ago. Denied parole three weeks ago.

Died last night, just before midnight California time.

I wrote a blog entry right after the parole board turned her down. I talked about compassion and forgiveness and keeping people locked up for the sake of keeping them locked up. And as punishment.

And she's dead now. She didn't get that brief breath of free air, that last opportunity for peace in the arms of her husband. That moment of human grace that could have been offered at a time when she could clearly do no harm.

Because, you know, the enormity.

I like that word, "enormity." It doesn't mean "enormousness" or "bigness." Rather, it means "great wickedness." An enormity is an evil act. Susan Atkins did that. No question. More than one.

Crimes, we learn in law school, have two Latin-named components: there's the mens rea and the actus reus.

Mens rea is the requisite mental state. Some crimes have as the requisite mens rea specific intent: You have to have meant to do just that. Some require knowledge or purpose or recklessness or negligence or whatever the crime and your jurisdiction's law demands. Some are strict liability crimes, which means that there is no mens rea requirement (doesn't matter whether you knew that the speed limit was 65 mph on the interstate when you were clocked doing 135).

Actus reus is the criminal act which may be malum in se or malum prohibitum. If the actus is malum in se, it's bad, and hence made criminal, because it's bad, murder for example. If the actus is malum prohibitum, it's bad because they made a law that said so. The Ohio offense of servicing a mare within 30 feet of a public street, for instance, is malum prohibitum.

(I haven't flung about Latin with such abandon in years, and proabably haven't used these terms this much in total since I left law school.)

What Susan Atkins did, no question, is malum in se. And she apparently did it with so depraved a mind that she satisfied whatever mens rea was applicable. (Atkins has said that as she was stabbing the pregnant Sharon Tate, Tate was begging for mercy for the baby she hoped to bear, but Atkins said she had no mercy in her then.)

But she was dying. Confined. One leg amputated, one paralyzed. And we kept her in prison exactly why?

To show we're not swayed by sympathy or mercy any more than she was that time forty years ago? Because it was what was coming to her? Just desserts? Equal punishment? Do unto others as they did unto you (the Leaden Rule)?

Because, you know, the enormity.

Malum in se? Malum prohibitum?

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