Should a prisoner’s terminal illness be a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card?"
Two of the world’s most notorious murderers—a Manson follower and a terrorist bomber—recently requested “compassionate release” from prison because they are dying of cancer.
61 year-old Susan Atkins--serving a life sentence in a California prison for her role in the Charles Manson cult killings--petitioned authorities for compassionate release. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, she believed she should be allowed to die at home.
In Scotland, the man known as the “Lockerbie Bomber”—convicted in the terrorist deaths of 270 people aboard Pan Am Flight 103—sought compassionate release as doctors declared he had only three months to live. He has terminal prostate cancer, seven years into his life sentence.
In each case, relatives and supporters of the victims opposed release, saying murderers who showed no compassion for those they killed should receive no compassion now.
But the prosecutor who originally put Atkins behind bars almost 40 years ago argued in favor of her death-bed freedom, saying it was wrong to believe that “just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her.” Atkins’ husband said California should consider the $17,000 a month they’d save in medical bills.
Atkins’ request was denied, and she died less than a month later. However, the bomber, Abdulbaset al-Megrahi, was released from prison and flew home to a hero’s welcome in his native Libya. Scottish officials said they were “bound by Scottish values” in making a morally responsible decision. “Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed, but compassion available,” said the country’s senior justice official.
A life sentence in prison “ought to mean until you’re dead, which neither Atkins nor al-Megrahi is,” countered an American newspaper columnist. “It’s hard to see why people who have committed violent crimes deserve any consideration beyond fair trial and sentencing they have already gotten. Compassionate release is compassionate only to criminals, not their victims.”
Tell us what you think: Do we have a moral responsibility to release terminally ill prisoners? Should a life sentence be commuted for any reason other than the innocence of the convicted? Should state-financed medical costs ever play a role in the decision for compassionate release?