Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Quality of Mercy

I read the other day that Susan Atkins, one of the idiots who followed Charles Manson and killed at his behest, is dying of brain cancer and has asked to be released to spend her last days in freedom as an "act of mercy." I am astonished at her chutzpah

This is the woman who entered the home of director Roman Polanski (who was not home at the time) and actress Sharon Tate and helped murder Tate and four other people. Tate, who was eight and a half months pregnant, begged for her life, asking Atkins to spare her life so that she could have her baby. Atkins told Tate she had no mercy for her and then stabbed Tate to death, tasted Tate's blood and used Tate's blood to write "PIG" on the front door of the house. In her trial she showed no remorse for killing Tate or for killing Gary Hinman, a young musician, two weeks before.

I have long opposed the death penalty, and am still opposed to it-- even for Ms. Atkins or even for the sociopath who murdered one of my closest friends two years ago. By not executing Ms. Atkins, we as a society have shown the unrepentant Atkins more mercy than she showed her victims. Atkins was sentenced originally to death, but her sentence was commuted to life in prison. Whether she died at 90 of a heart attack or at her current age, 59, of brain cancer doesn't matter-- she was sentenced to be in prison to the end of her life. She forfeited any claim to mercy when she murdered those people. She can spend her final days pondering, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the quality of mercy.


Anonymous said...

This is probably going to get me flamed...but there is room for a bit of mercy. What the article fails to mention is that Susan Atkins has been a Born Again Christian for years. If I recall correctly possibly 20 or more and has been an active in prison as a Christian lay worker since her conversion. OK, Johnny like you I am opposed to the death penalty, always have been even after the murder of a friend in 1975. There is room for a bit of mercy here, either let her go "free" to a hospital bed when her case comes up for rotation. Or when she reaches end stage, give she and her husband unlimited visitation a trailer on prison grounds. Then Atkins can die in hospice with whatever faith community she has, under supervision. By the last account I read into her conversion (possibly 10-15 years ago) she was doing good work. The better angel in me says give her a trailer to call home and a bit of privacy. A couple of months of hospice care is a decent reward for twenty years of service. Nothing can replace the lives she took so violently. But as a society we are also measured by how we treat the most vulnerable and whether we like it or not Susan Atkins may be becoming one of our most vulnerable in a few months.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

They have hospital beds in prison, do they not? It's not like she is being denied medical care.

Mob said...

I'm from Texas, so you probably know how we feel about things like this...

I think she'll be just fine where she is, Christian or not, it was a life sentence.

SkylersDad said...

Too bad she was born again instead of getting it right the first time. I say let her ride old Sparky...

But perhaps I am a wee bit over the top on this.

Suze's Sass said...

That's nice that she became a Christian. The fact is she still killed people and was sentenced to life in prison. Not life in prison unless you become sick or find religion and do good things in prison.

Sorry, my cousin was murdered and I feel very strongly about people having to serve out their time.

Mathman6293 said...

I agree with you. People do change and if she was born ago twenty years I imagine her religion will help her find peace in the end.

Johnny Yen said...

I definitely see your point. I respect that she has found god (a god I haven't found, though). It would have been nicer if she'd found that god before she'd murdered a couple of people in cold blood. I also wonder if she'd have found it if she'd not been locked behind walls with nothing better to do. If she hadn't been caught, I'm pretty certain that she wouldn't have found that god, and would have continued killing.

My friend Mark once said to me something similar to what you said-- that in the end, our society will probably be judged by how well we took care of our helpless. He also opposed the death penalty. If the guy who murdered him goes to trial, I know that I would be in a minority of his friends and family arguing in his name against the death penalty for his killer. The guy who killed him turned away from everything that was handed to him-- a free education, a relatively free society, access to books and information-- and chose to be in a homicidal thug. Ms. Atkins made the same set of choices. Lots of people who grow up in tough, violent, impoverished or other bad circumstances make better choices.

I looked up Atkins and discovered that she did indeed have a pretty rough life when she was young; two alcoholic parents, then a mother who died young and shuffled from home to home. I have empathy, to be sure. But my own father's story is frightenly similar, and he had a lifetime of hard work and raising a family-- and not getting involved with a murderous gang.

In the end, I believe that there are lines in life-- if those lines are crossed, there is no going back. I believe that Atkins crossed that line. I believe that she should end her life incarcerated, just as I believe that the guy who killed Mark should.

I think in the end, I see Sharon Tate as I see Mark-- the horrible fear he must have had in the end as he realized that a sociopath was in control of the end of his life. Tate wasn't even 30 yet. Mark would have had another 40 or more years ahead of him. I believe that anyone who takes that time from someone-- and the time that loved ones would have had with them-- away needs to pay a price.

The irony is that she, a murderer, is entitled to medical care, while people who are not locked up for crimes are not.

Given that she gave a death sentence to not one but two people, I think a life sentence was generous. As a teacher once told me when I fucked up, take your lumps.

Skylers Dad-
Yeah, it would have been nice for her to get it right the first time, wouldn't it?

Suzel's Sass-
Yeah, when she was being an asshole in court saying things like "Lock up your children" she didn't do much to endear herself to anybody.

I've done things I've deeply regretted, like anybody. I've got people who are in no hurry to forgive me. But hurting somebody's feelings and taking someone's last breath are so far apart. There are things that are unforgiveable.

The better part of me would like to believe that she's found that part of herself that is still human. It certainly wasn't there that night she killed. I think I'd have more respect if she had found it without religion-- that it was just self-realization. No diss on religion, but it strikes me that she traded one bad god, Manson, for another one who was more acceptable.

Honestly, I believe if she were really repentant, she'd accept what she had-- time to see things differently-- and something that she didn't give Sharon Tate, time, and go peacefully into the night. In my heart of hearts, I don't think she is repentant. I think she's a manipulative sociopath, even to the end.

MacGuffin said...

Once a sociopath, always a sociopath, irregardless of what they may later on profess to believing. The only means to dissuading other homicidal sociopaths like her (if anything in the end) from capriciously taking life, is the fear of retribution by society at large. In my opinion, that means life imprisonment or the death penalty for these kinds of heinous crimes. Then, of course, there's the matter of personal justice for the victims. What mercy were they shown?

Besides, if she's truly seen the Light,then she's already been shown Mercy by the Lord and can look forward to an Eternity in Heaven. Right? Hopefully, you can sense my sarcasm. Call me a skeptic but I believe in justice in the here and now. Keep her in prison. Amen.

Anonymous said...


Again we are not so very far apart, let me split the hair a bit farther. I agree with you she took the trail and murdered Sharon Tate and her unborn child in cold blood. She probably would have kept on this trail of murder if not caught. Vincent Burgosi himself (now one of the voices asking for her release) described her as "the ever animal". However, let's start the clock as she enters prison,(forgive my time line it's been a few years) the murders happened in 8/68, trial ended in 72? Atkins entered maximum security prison at that time. In 1977 she published a book "Child of Satan,Child of God" in which she details her rough childhood and conversion. I read it as a young criminal justice student, shortly after reading "Helter Skelter" for no less than two classes at RIT. I can remember thinking at the time that if she had found religion,good, but let's see if it would stick. That was 31 years ago, she still has religion and has served her ministry for 31 years now. I still say a trailer and a few weeks of hospice care on prison grounds is a decent reward for 31 years such service. Trust me, as one who has seen brain cancer close up she is most likely going to meet to her God at 80-90 pounds, seizing and in such pain that no drugs will be able to reach it. As a society we should be able to show a modicum of mercy to one so vulnerable in her last weeks. Keep her on prison grounds but give her a bit of comfort and let what ever faith community she has built sustain her . We can show as a society by a simple act of kindness that we are stronger than the act that put Susan Atkins in jail in the first place.


Bubs said...

There was plenty of mercy shown her when her death sentence was commuted.

Death penalty opponents would have an easier time overturning the death penalty if so many of them were not also trying to reduce sentences and show "mercy" to the likes of Ms. Atkins. Many people would be comfortable doing away with the death penalty if they could be assured that a convicted murderer could actually stay locked up. Too often, they don't, and each time a death penalty opponent advocates for the release of someone like Susan Atkins they provide fodder for death penalty advocates.

GETkristiLOVE said...

I agree with you JYen. Mercy has spared her life but if she is truly reborn as she claims, then what about respecting others over her own selfishness? What about Tate's family, who I'm sure would be highly disturbed by her release?

DivaJood said...

You know, as a recovering alcohlic, I have seen many people become rehabilitated. Truly changed, at core, in prison or out - but not one of them was as cold a killer as Susan Atkins or Charles Manson. I heard a man in AA talk about the time he served in prison for vehicular manslaughter. His remorse was genuine, and he paid his debt to society. He did not tell his victim he had no mercy.

And while I believe in the sincerity of Ms. Atkins' conversion to Christianity, I also believe that she's been shown tremendous mercy. I believe that she has done works of good while in prison with her ministry. I believe that she will find peace, has found peace, and probably remorse for the murders she committed. But she needs to serve her term, life without parole.

Mnmom said...

Wow! I'm torn.
Any human deserves good hospice care, and we as a society should provide that. But I agree that it probably should be on prison grounds.

No, she didn't show her victims any mercy nor did she provide them a peaceful end-of-life atmosphere. That is what makes her a criminal. But we are not criminals, and should continue to act as moral compassionate beings.

When I ground my kids, I still love them and provide food, shelter, medical needs, compassion, etc but that doesn't mean I lift the grounding.

Johnny Yen said...


Thank you all for the intelligent, diverse and respectful commentary. All food for thought. This is why I enjoy blogging so much.