For more than 90 minutes, supporters of Manson family killer Susan Atkins had the floor, painting for parole board members a picture of a remorseful, changed woman who should be released on compassionate grounds.
They spoke Tuesday of her imminent death but also about her “incredibly superhuman” record in prison, about how the young woman who had killed so wantonly decades ago had become a loving aunt and friend.
A social worker who flew in from New York, an independent filmmaker, a brother and nieces all stood up to assert that Atkins had more than paid her debt to society.
Then the tall woman with the long, blond hair stood at the podium. She spoke on behalf of the sister of one of those murdered by Atkins and the Manson gang.
“I will start out by saying that Susan Atkins is a coldblooded murderer,” Lynn Matthews said as the audience looked on, captivated.
Though supporters of Atkins’ release outnumbered them at the hearing, Matthews and others who opposed it carried the day.
The 12-member California Board of Parole voted unanimously to deny Atkins’ request for a court hearing that could have released her to die outside prison. Tellingly, opponents of Atkins’ release spoke for only about 20 minutes. But that seemed long enough.
In those minutes, relatives and friends of the eight people killed by the Manson gang brought back the horror of that summer in 1969.
Atkins, 60, played a central role in the slayings of Tate and others in a bloody two-night rampage in the Los Angeles area.
She has served 37 years in prison, longer than any other woman currently a prisoner in California, officials say.
Now ill with brain cancer, with one leg amputated and the other paralyzed, Atkins has only months to live, doctors have said.
The petition for Atkins’ release ignited debate about what mercy is appropriate, particularly considering the grisly crimes for which she was convicted. With the rejection by the panel, the process is effectively over, making it highly likely that she will die in custody.
In opposing Atkins’ release, some family members had to bring back painful memories.
Pam Turner, a cousin of Sharon Tate, recalled the pregnant actress’ return to the United States, and dreaming of helping her with her baby.
Then she spoke about wanting to die after finding out that Tate and her unborn son had been stabbed to death.
“I was a child, but I was so sick with grief that I wished I too could die,” Turner said, sobbing. She described how Tate’s mother, her aunt, “howled like a wounded animal.”
And she recalled how her late aunt had been overcome with emotion when Turner became pregnant herself.
“She once put her hands on my pregnant belly and just cried,” she said. “She didn’t have to say what she was crying for. I knew. She was looking right through me and seeing Sharon and what could have been.”
Those backing Atkins’ release argued unsuccessfully that the cost of keeping her in prison,estimated at $1.4 million for medical care and security just since March, should count in favor of releasing her because it would save the state substantial amounts of money.
“She has without a doubt paid her debt to society,” said her niece, Sharisse Atkins, 17. “You see her as part of the Manson family. I see her as part of our family. I hope you can find it in your heart to do the right thing.”
Her supporters drew attention at the hearing to former Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s support for Atkins’ release.
In an e-mail this week to Atkins’ attorney, Bugliosi wrote that it was wrong to say 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.”
Anthony DiMaria, the nephew of Jay Sebring, a hairdresser killed at the home of Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, read a quote from Atkins’ husband, James Whitehouse, in which he alluded to the “ridiculous” amount of money spent guarding someone so ill.”
“To sum up these murders in terms of cost efficiency trivializes the victims’ lives and the lifelong impact on the victims’ families,” he said, reading a statement toward the end of the hearing.
“In my mother’s words, ‘Susan Atkins repeatedly committed crimes requiring full premeditation and executed them in a cavalier manner that afforded her victims no mercy,’ ” DiMaria continued.
“You will hear various opinions and perspectives today. But you will hear nothing from the many people who lie in their graves.”