Steve Chapman

If we are going to rely on the Almighty in these matters, though, I would prefer that pleas for clemency from convicted killers also be addressed to Him. The truth is we are all going to die, and if we prefer not to do it in prison, we have the option of not committing crimes whose punishment might get in the way of our last wishes.

Like Atkins, Megrahi had already been spared execution, which amounts to gratuitous cruelty. Many of us who oppose the death penalty nonetheless think that when someone gets a life sentence, we should not have to parse the meaning of "life." It ought to mean till you're dead, which neither Atkins nor Megrahi is.

It's some consolation that Megrahi is something of an exception, since infamous killers don't usually get the chance to walk free. California law excludes "compassionate release" for anyone sentenced to life without parole. But mere life sentences often qualify for early release.

One was granted to Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a member of the Manson cult who was not involved in the Los Angeles murders but who in 1975 walked up to President Gerald Ford in Sacramento and shoved a loaded pistol in his face. She was convicted of attempted assassination and went to prison. But last month, still quite alive at 60, she was freed to go her merry way.

Maybe Fromme is now harmless, and maybe there is money to be saved by letting her or Atkins out of their taxpayer-financed housing. But few government funds were ever better spent. And it's hard to see why people who have committed violent crimes deserve any consideration beyond the fair trial and sentencing they have already gotten. Compassionate release is compassionate only to criminals, not their victims. 

All this brings to mind the exchange in Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged," when one character asks another to define the opposite of charity. The answer? "Justice."

Steve Chapman

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

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