Justice vs. Compassion – My Choice

Published: July 8, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said, “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

In the decision regarding Susan Atkins plea for “compassionate release” based on a terminal illness, I choose compassion.  But not in the way you might think.

When I first read “Manson, Murder and Mercy” by Matthew Schmalz, I had many of the same reactions that the majority of others who chose justice had.  How can we possibly consider compassion in light of such a shocking crime?  How can we overlook her contemptible behavior in the courtroom?

Why should we even think about granting any consideration to someone, who by all current accounts has not offered any meaningful contrition other than she heard God tell her that she was forgiven?  If that’s criteria for release then the prisons would be emptied of inmates claiming that they too heard the words of forgiveness from the Almighty.

I thought about all these things, and then I remembered a story sent to me for my book, “What Do You Stand For?”  by Peter Westbrook.

”When my mother was beaten and killed on a New Jersey bus for no reason, it allowed me to stand up for my convictions. I prayed to the Creator that the person who killed my mother would learn to appreciate other people’s lives more and also her own. When the prosecutor’s office wanted to put her away for many, many years, I disagreed in hope that if she could be remorseful, she could be used better on the outside serving humanity rather than in prison serving no one. I asked for her sentence to be shortened and it was.

”What I also received from my mother’s death is a completion of myself. I have a finer appreciation of sadness, loss, and compassion for others that one cannot understand unless it happens to you. However, most of the time the loss of a loved one through violence makes the person living experience so much anger, pain, and rage that it sometimes destroys them or stifles their growth, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It had the opposite effect on me. It made me more complete.  God is good to me.”

I chose compassion for one reason: in spite of Susan Atkins horrific crimes, in spite of our own anger and outrage, I realized… we’re better than that.

I have a deep belief in justice, and a strong desire to see that the guilty are caught and justice served.  In Atkins case, I believe justice has been served, and that an act of compassion does not diminish that justice, but rather it serves to elevate all of us.

However, I don’t believe that in order to demonstrate true compassion that we necessarily have to release Atkins to her home and family.

One question that came to mind in looking at the possibility of release was also put forth by Richard Wade.  What about Susan Atkins’ safety from the many who still hold a deep and real vengeance toward her?  What about the real possibility of some one or group attempting to murder her out of that vengeance? How many others might be injured or killed as a result of her release?  How then, would justice or compassion be served?

My recommendation would include that she be removed to a safe, and undisclosed, but lower security facility with strong hospital services to provide the necessary medical care she requires.  Like David Krieger, I would also like to see that any family members be permitted to visit her in a safe and secure manner.  This may not fulfill her request for “compassionate release,” but I believe it does demonstrate a compassionate response to her terminal illness.

Difficult choices teach us about what we care about, what we value, and what we stand for.  Ultimately, they reveal who we are.

Most of us may never face a decision as outlined in the Susan Atkins scenario, but all of us will face choices involving honesty, loyalty, duty, compassion and the courage to make the right choice in spite of the personal costs.  This is why I admire and talk about people such as Jeff Wigand and Cynthia Cooper who stood up and did the right thing regardless of the consequences to themselves.

The last lines of Lincoln’s first inaugural address reveal a newly inducted commander and chief urgently trying to inspire and motivate a deeply divided nation on the brink of war by appealing to “the better angles of our nature.”  Sadly, his words came too late to stop that terrible and costly conflict.

But shouldn’t we endeavor to do better next time?

Ethical values are not some arcane set of principles that sit on a shelf referenced only in debate over some weighty dilemma.  They are living principles to be utilized in small ways as well as larger issues in order that we may strive to live up to those “better angles.”

How we decide, and the choices we make ultimately determine the purpose and course of our lives.

UPDATE – July 17

In a unanimous ruling, the 12-member California Board of Parole denied Susan Atkins request for “compassionate release.”

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