The debate over whether to release the dying former Manson family member Susan Atkins from prison is filled with confusion. Partly this may be due to the strong emotions involved; after all, Ms. Atkins did not show mercy to Sharon Tate. But some of the comments I’ve read on various news agencies’ web sites are either emotional rants or reveal a failure to understand the concept of mercy.
Since I cannot influence emotional rants, I will focus on the topic of mercy. Some people will say something like this: “Susan Atkins does not deserve mercy! She participated in the brutal murder of a pregnant woman and shouldn’t receive mercy herself.” Now the right response to such a claim is to state the obvious: “Of course she doesn’t deserve mercy.” Who does? Mercy is, by definition, something undeserved. If mercy were deserved it would no longer be mercy. Now it is true that when someone hurts us, we usually show mercy when that person repents of the wrong and apologizes, as well as takes steps to heal the broken relationship. Even then, justice may ask that we continue to punish the person–and yet most of us don’t continue to punish. We show mercy–not because we don’t believe in justice, but because we do.
In his argument against the “humanitarian theory of punishment,” a view that calls crime a disease and claims that the cure for crime is treatment, C. S. Lewis points out that this theory is not as “humanitarian” as we might believe. If crime is a disease, we can literally do anything to cure that disease–mercy has no place in such a system. But if crime is due to people’s evil moral choices, then they deserve punishment. And if they deserve punishment, there is room for clemency and mercy. It is only because Susan Atkins deserves punishment for her terrible crimes that anyone would bring up the issue of whether to show her mercy by releasing her from prison.
Should she receive mercy? That is a difficult question given the horror of what she did. However, all the evidence supports the view that she has been a changed person, at least since 1977 when she converted to Christianity. Although I cannot see into her mind, it seems to have been a genuine conversion leading to a real change in her life. Whether she is released or remains in prison until she dies will not change the facts of what she did, and I doubt that a desert theory of punishment can even coherently say what she really deserves for her crime. But she doesn’t deserve mercy–that would have to come as a gift from California authorities. And although she doesn’t deserve mercy, there are factors, such as her repentance and changed life, that can and should influence the decision for or against mercy. Although emotions are high in this case, I am surprised by the reaction of many Christians, especially of the conservative variety (among which I count myself, although I am not a Fundamentalist on the Bible)–I have read comments very close to hatred, comments such as “I hope she dies in prison and rots in hell.” I wonder if the founder of Christianity who said that those who show no mercy will receive none would agree with such comments. Although I am not in the position to vote on Ms. Atkins’ fate and although I realize there are many good people who will disagree with me, if I were voting I would take the route of mercy and support Ms. Atkins’ release.
Postscript: Susan Atkins was not released and died peacefully in the prison infirmary. She did some terrible things, no doubt. But I do not doubt that she was sincerely penitent. Requiescat in pace.