Few if any murders carry the horrifying cachet of the Manson murders in 1969. The deaths of seven people on two nights at the end of a tumultuous decade combined all of the political and cultural baggage of the era — drugs, counterculture, celebrity, cults, and pure evil in the form of the perpetrators, especially Charles Manson himself. Combining mass murder and serial murder, the Manson Family has played on the imaginations of Americans for almost 40 years, while its members routinely apply for parole and get rejected.
Now one of them faces death, although much different in nature than the deaths she herself inflicted on her victims. Susan Atkins, probably the most committed of all the Tate/LaBianca murderers to Manson himself, has terminal brain cancer and is not expected to live out the year. She wants to be released so that she can die at home, presumably with family and friends. Matthew Schmalz asks in Newsweek whether mercy or retribution should take precedence (via Shaun Mullen):
Justice or mercy? That is the pressing question in what seems to be a coda in the story of the 1969 Manson family murders. At issue is the request by Susan Atkins, now 60, for compassionate release from prison on the grounds of terminal illness.
Apart from Charles Manson himself, Atkins was the public face of the Manson family during the Tate-LaBianca murder trial. She had bragged about mercilessly stabbing the pregnant Sharon Tate and laughed when details of the murders were presented in court. When she received a death sentence, the verdict seemed particularly appropriate. When her punishment was later changed to life imprisonment with possibility parole, it seemed to be a gross distortion of the justice process. If there was an example of unmerited mercy in the criminal justice system, surely this was it.
I have to admit to an-almost lifelong fascination with the Manson case. I grew up in Southern California and read Helter Skelter at 13, just seven years after the murders, and it was the only book that ever scared me — and I used to read everything Stephen King wrote. The bloodthirsty nature of the defendants, especially Atkins, was brought to life by Vincent Bugliosi. Now I oppose the death penalty, but these defendants certainly were the poster children for its imposition, and Atkins only slightly less than Manson himself.
It was Atkins who killed the pregnant actress Sharon Tate, telling her first that she had no mercy for Tate or her unborn child, which makes her plea for mercy now more than a little ghastly. Most people feel that she got more than her allotted measure of mercy from the Supreme Court decision that threw out their death-penalty sentences.
In view of her illness, though, the issue is worth discussing. Prisons have three purposes in modern times: rehabilitation, justice, and public safety in keeping dangerous criminals from harming any more innocents. Are any of these purposes served by keeping Atkins in prison until she draws her last breath?
To hear Schmalz tell it, Atkins has already been rehabilitated. She has served her sentence as a model prisoner since the mid-1970s, and has posed no danger to herself or others. Schmalz tends to over-credit the Christian conversion of Atkins — it’s an oft-used ruse by prisoners looking for parole — but let’s assume he’s right and she’s rehabilitated. That would also indicate that we no longer need to worry that Atkins will resume murdering people in their homes to start race wars on behalf of Manson.
That still leaves justice, however, and it’s pretty hard to argue that Atkins has paid that measure yet. Atkins was convicted of eight murders, which means she’s served just over 4.5 years for every life she took. Atkins is both a serial and mass murderer, having committed the eight murders in three separate incidents. Is 37 years really enough to provide justice for these acts?
And while I oppose the death penalty, I fully support life without parole, although Atkins is eligible for parole thanks to the way the death sentences got dismissed. Life without parole pretty clearly means that we expect the worst offenders to die in prison, not in the comfort of their homes. Atkins qualifies as the worst of offenders, and she should not see the light of a free day.
Addendum: I want to make one more point about Christian forgiveness, in line with Schmalz’ essay. We believe in redemption, of course, but redemption does not exempt people from the temporal consequences of their actions. Merely going to the confessional, for instance, does not mean a murderer should not receive their just punishment. Christians hope and pray for the redemption of all souls, including that of Atkins (and Manson, for that matter) — but that essentially remains between Atkins and God and has little to do with the question of release.