Few back Atkins’ freedom bid

Times Staff Writers

A growing chorus of prosecutors and other critics is urging state prison officials to reject former Charles Manson follower and convicted murderer Susan Atkins’ request for “compassionate release” because of a terminal illness.

A state board will take up the issue today. Corrections officials say the state has spent more than $1.4 million providing medical care and security for Atkins since her diagnosis of terminal brain cancer in March.

The state Board of Parole Hearings has received about 100 letters, most of them opposing her release.


In a letter Friday to the chairman of the parole board, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Atkins’ “horrific crimes alone warrant a denial of her request.”

Cooley said Atkins, 60, was not a good candidate for compassionate release because she had “failed to demonstrate genuine remorse and lacks insight and understanding of the gravity of her crimes.”

Atkins has been in state prison for 37 years, longer than any other female inmate in California, officials said.

Atkins and other members of Manson’s cult were convicted in seven murders during a bloody rampage in the Los Angeles area over two nights in 1969. Actress Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski, was 8 1/2 months pregnant when she and four others were killed at her hilltop home in Benedict Canyon.

The initial request for release consideration was made by doctors and prison officials after it was determined that Atkins had less than six months to live. Officials at her prison in Chino approved her release, as did officials at corrections headquarters in Sacramento.

“She can’t care for herself, she can’t feed herself or even sit up in bed by herself,” said her attorney, Eric P. Lampel. In addition to the cancer, Atkins had her leg amputated. “The reality is, even if she gets this compassionate release, she won’t leave her hospital room.”

Lampel said his client was not a threat to society and had been a model prisoner for nearly four decades.

“It was a horrific crime; she should have been convicted. She helped. She participated and she got the sentence she got and she fulfilled it,” Lampel said.

The issue has divided two prosecutors in the Tate-La Bianca killings, who had successfully argued for the death penalty before it was temporarily ruled unconstitutional. The killers’ sentences were commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Former prosecutor Stephen R. Kay opposes Atkins’ release. Kay, 65, said he had attended about 60 parole hearings related to the killings over the years and spent a lot of time with the victims’ families, witnessing their suffering.

“Atkins married twice while in prison. For a long time, she got conjugal visits,” Kay said Monday. “And Sharon Tate and the others were dead and buried long ago. So I think it’s a matter of principle that she should not be granted clemency.”

Kay, who retired as a deputy district attorney in 2005 and now works as a city attorney for Redondo Beach, said he would be “shocked” if Atkins was released.

“Because of Susan Atkins’ actions, I just can’t see her being released,” he said. “I haven’t really seen that she has actual remorse for the victims’ families.”

But prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi said Monday that he’d provided a declaration for today’s hearing supporting Atkins’ release largely because of her failing health.

Bugliosi said Lampel told him that Atkins had not only lost a leg, but that the other one was paralyzed. In an e-mail to Atkins’ attorney in support of her release, he wrote that the notion that “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” was wrong, Bugliosi said.

“Mercy is already built into California statutory law, because if it weren’t, we would automatically give the death penalty for every murder case, which we don’t,” he said. “My point is, what mercy are we giving her? It’s not like she has six months to live, and we’re letting her go home and she’s going to have fun with her family.

“My view is that anyone who opposes her request, other than relatives of the seven Tate-La Bianca victims . . . is either being robotic or extremely callous,” Bugliosi said. “The mercy being requested now is almost too minuscule to speak of because she’s in bed and she’s going to die.”

Despite Bugliosi’s view, there has been a growing drumbeat against Atkins’ being released.

Suzan Hubbard, director of California’s adult prisons, expressed her opposition last month to recommendations favoring release by officials at Atkins’ jail as well as corrections headquarters.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas wrote the director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation saying Atkins should remain behind bars and away from Orange County, where her husband lives.

“It would be a grave miscarriage of justice to burden the citizens of Orange County by paroling her to Orange County, where she can enjoy the comforts of her husband, home and mercy she did not show Sharon Tate [or] her unborn baby.”

Atkins’ request for release has been approved by the California Institution for Women in Chino, where she was housed from April 1971 until March, when she was transferred to a local hospital for treatment.

Her bid for compassionate release will be one of two cases considered today as part of a regularly scheduled monthly board meeting.

The presentation to the board will include Atkins’ medical records, recommendations from state corrections officials and her criminal history as well as information related to her behavior while in prison and an assessment of whether her release would pose a risk to the public.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the hearing would be public and speakers would be limited to five minutes for comment. After the board hears those cases as well as other agenda items, it will retire to closed session and is expected to post its decisions today.