To allow Susan Atkins to die at home would be an act of mercy -- but not of justice. By the terms of justice, she forfeited her claim to freedom on an August night in 1969 when she murdered Sharon Tate. Tate begged for her life; Atkins slit her throat and then wrote “PIG” on the front door in the slain woman’s blood. For her part in that and other ghoulish sprees as a member of the Manson family, Atkins was sentenced to die, only to be spared in 1972 when the state Supreme Court abolished the death penalty. Now, facing her own mortality, she seeks compassionate release. Her case thus frames two competing imperatives of the penal system -- the right of society to demand justice and the desire of humans to grant mercy.
As readers of this page know, we oppose the death penalty under all circumstances. Over the years, that conviction has led us to oppose the executions of many vile men and women, with one glaring exception -- that of Timothy McVeigh, whose punishment we welcomed in 1997. We now regret that editorial and have since returned to our steadfast opposition to state-sanctioned murder.
To oppose capital punishment, however, is not to oppose the notion that some people deserve to die in prison. Atkins has spent 37 years in custody, longer than any other woman in California’s system. After so much time, the horror of her deeds as a young woman has given way to her own slow demise. She lost a leg and now suffers from terminal brain cancer. Given her fate, Atkins has attracted the sympathy of some who once actively condemned her crimes, notably Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the Manson family. He and others argue that it is pointless -- a burden on taxpayers and an act without penal significance -- to allow Atkins to deteriorate and die behind bars.
Our system of justice attempts three noble aims: punishment, protection of society and deterrence (some would add rehabilitation). Atkins poses no physical threat to society. Her sentence and time in prison undoubtedly have sent a deterrent message to any would-be Mansonite still lurking out there. And she may well have been rehabilitated: While serving her sentence, Atkins has written a book, explored religions, taught classes. Has she been punished? Yes, of course; 37 years is not trivial. But Atkins gravely wounded our collective peace, and society has the right, even the obligation, to exact vengeance. For some criminals, including Atkins, the crime is so great that the price should be imprisonment until death.
Atkins rejected Tate’s plea for mercy and now asks for ours. We do not support the government’s right to kill her, but we would not grant her mercy either.