Steve Chapman

People don't always get what they deserve in this world, so it is gratifying to see when someone does. It happened Wednesday when a California parole board insisted that Susan Atkins, a 61-year-old amputee with incurable brain cancer, live her few remaining months in prison rather than the embrace of her loved ones.

This may sound like pointless excess inflicted on someone whose crime, committed 40 years ago, is ancient history. But even to mention Atkins without first mentioning her victims is an affront. In 1969, she repeatedly thrust a knife into an innocent woman who was eight and a half months pregnant, killing her and her unborn child.

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It's a crime that might be forgotten except that Atkins was a member of Charles Manson's murderous cult. Her victim, actress Sharon Tate, stabbed 16 times, was one of seven people slaughtered in Los Angeles in a two-night spree that Manson, insanely, thought would ignite a massive race war.

Atkins and her co-defendants were convicted and sentenced to die, but her sentence was reduced to life in prison when the state supreme court abolished capital punishment in 1972. Her illness served as grounds to ask the parole board for "compassionate release" so she could peacefully expire outside of prison.

Even her prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, endorsed the idea. "She's already paid substantially for her crime, close to 40 years behind bars," he told The Los Angeles Times. "She has terminal cancer. The mercy she was asking for is so minuscule."

But the parole board unanimously refused. No doubt the board members recalled that in a 1993 parole hearing, Atkins acknowledged that when she had her own opportunity to grant clemency, she chose not to. Tate begged Atkins to spare her baby, to no avail.

"Compassionate release" already has a bad name in this country because it was the basis for Scotland's decision to free the only person convicted in the 1988 airline bombing over Lockerbie, which killed 270 people. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was serving a life sentence but, afflicted with terminal prostate cancer, was sent home to Libya to live out his remaining time on Earth.

Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill defended the decision by saying, "Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion available." He noted that the killer "now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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