Friday, September 25, 2009

What Does It Mean?

Last month, I wrote about the release of the Lockerbie bomber from prison. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had been given three months to live — so, presumably, he will be dead by Thanksgiving.

It was a humanitarian gesture by the authorities in Scotland, where he was incarcerated. They felt the humane thing would be to allow him to return to Libya and die with his family and friends nearby. But the decision provoked an indignant howl in this country and in others.

At the time, I observed that Susan Atkins, one of the members of the Manson family who participated in the slaughter of Sharon Tate and her houseguests in 1969, was coming up for parole this month. I expressed my hope that Atkins, who was terminally ill, would be granted a similar humanitarian release, but I also said that I didn't expect her to be paroled.

As it turned out, she wasn't.

Well, the authorities won't have to confront that awkward issue again — at least not with Atkins. She died last night.

But that doesn't really answer the question of what prison authorities in California will do the next time they are asked to consider whether to grant a parole to a terminally ill inmate — and they are certain to face the question again sometime — maybe next week, maybe next month, maybe next year.

Does the Atkins case mean that anyone who is convicted of a high–profile crime has no chance of being given parole, even if he/she is terminally ill? Will someone who is convicted of a similar crime that was not on the front pages of every major newspaper in the nation stand a better chance of being paroled than Atkins did if he/she is determined to be terminally ill?

As far as I know, those questions have not been addressed. Nor would I expect them to be in parole proceedings for a single prison inmate.

But things in the legal world seem to be governed by precedent. And, in this case, the precedent that was set by Atkins' unsuccessful plea for parole suggests that the answer would be "yes."

Is there room for compassion in the penal system?

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