On an infamous summer night in 1969, young followers of Charles Manson entered a Benedict Canyon mansion and murdered five people gathered on the compound.
Actress Sharon Tate, 8 1/2 months pregnant with the son of director Roman Polanski, begged one of the knife-wielding killers to spare her life. The attacker was Susan Atkins, and her response was cold and unequivocal.
“She asked me to let her baby live,” Atkins told parole officials in 1993. “I told her I didn’t have mercy for her.”
Almost 40 years later, it’s Atkins who is asking for mercy.
Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and confined to state prison on a life sentence, the 59-year-old is asking to be released from state prison on “compassionate” grounds.
By most accounts, Atkins, a former topless dancer who used to sing in her church choir, was one of Manson’s fiercest disciples. After stabbing and killing Tate, prosecutors said Atkins tasted the actress’ blood and used it to write “PIG” on the front door. During her trial, which took more than nine months, Atkins showed no remorse and maintained utter devotion to Manson, whom she called “Jesus Christ,” “the devil” and “the soul.” During sentencing, she taunted the court by saying, “You’d best lock your doors and watch your own kids.”
Atkins was convicted of killing Tate and also of stabbing musician Gary Hinman to death two weeks before the Tate murder. The night after the Tate murders, members of the so-called Manson family -- but not Atkins -- broke into a home in the hills of Silver Lake, killing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.
Behind bars, Atkins has been a model prisoner who for the last 21 years has been married to an Orange County attorney who represented her at her last parole hearing. She has been in state prison for 37 years, longer than any other female inmate.
Debra Tate, the actress’ sister and only surviving relative, strongly opposes the release of Atkins or any members of the Manson family.
“They are serial killers and they were convicted to die and they need to stay incarcerated,” she said. “People don’t just become cured from being sociopaths. There’s no deprogramming, no pills, no drugs that make that go away.”
Margaret DiMaria, the sister of Jay Sebring, a hairdresser who was killed at the Benedict Canyon home, agreed.
“It is most unfortunate that Ms. Atkins now suffers a terminal illness. However, in the eyes of the law and in memory of her victims, I fail to see how one thing correlates to the other,” DiMaria and her son Anthony said in a statement Friday. “She repeatedly committed crimes requiring evil premeditation and executed them in a cavalier manner that afforded her victims no mercy. The sentence Ms. Atkins now serves should not be mitigated because fate has struck this blow.”
But Atkins’ petition has won some guarded support from unlikely quarters, including Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who successfully sought the death penalty for Atkins.
“Under these unique circumstances, told she has only about six months to live . . . . I don’t have any objection to her being released,” he said. “She has paid substantially, though not completely, for her horrendous crimes. Paying completely would mean imposing the death penalty.”
Atkins’ death sentence was automatically commuted to a life term after the state Supreme Court overturned capital punishment in 1972. But cancer has become another kind of death sentence, Bugliosi said, noting that she has already had a leg amputated.
Bugliosi said his decision to support Atkins’ release wasn’t easy.
“She told me out of her own mouth that Sharon Tate begged for her life, ‘Please let me live, so I can have my baby,’ ” Bugliosi recalled. “And she said, ‘I don’t have mercy for you. . . . You’re going to die.’ And now, she wants mercy?”
Her request for a compassionate release has already been approved by the California Institution for Women in Corona, where she was housed from April 23, 1971, to March 18 of this year, when she was admitted to a local hospital. But it must also be approved by the state parole board, which will take up the case in coming months.
If the board approves her release -- and that’s far from a sure bet -- a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge would have to sign off on it. Since 1991, about a third of compassionate release requests have been granted, though in recent years the numbers have been smaller.
The rampage by the Manson family in 1969 left eight people dead and Los Angeles shaken, and by many accounts it ended the “flower power” era of the ‘60s.
“The murders forced L.A.'s counterculturalists to confront the possibility that not everyone with long hair under 30 was their brother,” author Michael Walker wrote in his book “Laurel Canyon.”
Manson and his followers lived a cult-like existence at the remote Spahn Ranch near Chatsworth, a lifestyle marked by violence, drugs and sex. Manson, a failed musician, called himself and his followers “Slippies” who would masquerade as peace-loving hippies. Manson and his mobile commune, made up mostly of young women, traveled to Big Sur, Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico, among other places.
On Aug. 9, 1969, Manson waited back at the ranch while Atkins, Charles “Tex” Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel went to Benedict Canyon.
Officials later said Manson knew of the house on Cielo Drive because he once tried unsuccessfully to get its former resident, music producer Terry Melcher, interested in making his record.
Besides Tate, four others were stabbed and shot to death: Sebring, 35; Voytek Frykowski, 32, a friend of Polanski, who was out of the country; Abigail Folger, 25, a coffee heiress; and Steven Parent, 18, a friend of the caretaker.
The next night, Manson rode along with family members and tied up the LaBiancas, then left Watson, Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten to commit the murders.
Atkins married twice while in prison, in 1981 to a self-proclaimed Texas millionaire who had been married 35 times before. The marriage ended when he decided to take another wife. In 1987, she married James W. Whitehouse, the Orange County attorney who represented her at the last few parole hearings.
On Friday, Whitehouse said that even if Atkins were released, she would likely remain hospitalized.
“If the compassionate release is granted, she’s not going any place,” he said. “Unless there’s a miracle, she may never leave the hospital.”
Whitehouse said Atkins, a born-again Christian, has been involved in activities to help other inmates, including Alcoholics Anonymous programs.
Patrick Sequeira, a deputy district attorney who has opposed the release of the Manson killers at several probation hearings, said it’s too early for his office to make a decision on her release.
“It’s not unusual for inmates to, quote, find religion when in prison,” he said.
“Manson’s people sort of saw him as a visionary, religious figure. . . . It’s not necessarily a far stretch if you’re committed to a set of beliefs, to then change to another set of beliefs.”
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Where are they now?
Here’s a look at what happened to key figures in the Manson murders after the trial.
An inmate at Corcoran State Prison, the now 73-year-old Manson was denied parole for the 11th time last year. He did not attend or send a representative to the proceeding, saying previously that he considers himself a “prisoner of the political system.” He will not be eligible for release again until 2012. Manson has had 12 disciplinary violations since his last parole hearing in 2002.
Charles Denton “Tex” Watson
Convicted in the murders of Sharon Tate, Steven Parent, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski and Jay Sebring, and also the separate murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. He has been denied parole 13 times and remains at Mule Creek State Prison. He did not attend his last parole hearing.
Leslie Van Houten
Although state commissioners praised her disciplinary record at the California Institution for Women in Corona, Van Houten’s bid for release was refused by a parole board for the 15th time in 2006. She was convicted in the murders of the LaBiancas.
Convicted in the Tate and LaBianca murders, Krenwinkel remains at the California Institution for Women in Corona, along with Van Houten. Her next parole hearing is expected to be sometime this year. Krenwinkel has reportedly gotten involved in several programs in prison, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
Lead prosecutor in the Manson case: Bugliosi has written several books, including “Outrage,” about the acquittal of O.J. Simpson and “No Island of Sanity,” which dealt with Paula Jones and Bill Clinton. He has also been critical of President George W. Bush over the Iraq war, and wrote a book called “The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder,” as well as a book about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Charles H. Older
The Superior Court judge who presided over the Manson case, Older died in 2006 at age 88 after falling in his West Los Angeles home.
Paul J. Fitzgerald
A public defender who became a lead defense attorney in the Manson trial, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 2001 at age 64. He represented Krenwinkel, but he was the mainstay of the defense crew. Later, he became a popular lecturer.