Justice vs. Compassion – The Comments

Published: July 7, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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“I formed my opinion before finishing the second paragraph.”

So began one of several observations regarding my July 1st commentary about a choice before the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation concerning convicted murderer Susan Atkins:  she would either continue to serve a life sentence or be given a “compassionate release” due to a terminal illness.

A June 13, Los Angeles Times article cited “…sources close to the case that Atkins suffered from brain cancer and had undergone amputation of one of her legs. … [Officials at the California Institution for Women in Corona] concluded that Atkins should be considered for release because of her failing health and because she no longer posed a risk to others.”

True to the majority of comments from the Washington Post’s “On Faith” commentary, on which my post was based, most of the comments I received sided with justice.  One abstained until certain questions were answered.  And one chose compassion.

All the comments were thoughtful and articulate.  (And all appear, in their entirety, under “Recent Posts.”)

Overall, most believed that Atkins had already received compassion when her death sentence was changed to life in prison.  And most did not accept her religious insight as grounds for release.  “If her epiphany is genuine,” said one response, “she should understand that accepting and serving out her prison sentence is integral to the atonement process.”

One of the most thorough examinations came from Jamie O’Boyle, senior analyst for the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis.

“It was the Greeks who realized that in order to grow beyond tribalism (an Us vs. Them worldview with its unending vengeance cycles) the State would take on the dispensation of justice in the name of all the people (hence ‘The People vs. Susan Atkins.’) That took personal vengeance out of the equation in favor of the entire community vs. the transgressor and laid the groundwork for modern civilization.

“On the other side… is our deep cultural belief that everyone is redeemable.  The archetypal American hero in action movies never kills the villain in the heat of anger. …The concept of redemption as a cultural assumption is the basis of even considering Atkins’ application for clemency. It is the search for a resolution of the dichotomy between these two cultural drivers (Community vs. Redemption) that make this an ethical dilemma.

“Like most Americans,” O’Boyle concludes, “I have a predisposition to give people the benefit of the doubt – compassion – when they demonstrate repentance… But after examining the various ethical systems as I have done above – cultural, judicial, and religious, I find it difficult to come up with a solid argument in favor of releasing Atkins based on ethical grounds.”

More direct was John Baldwin’s decision.  “She was spared and got ‘a life sentence.’  No ethical dilemma.  Serve it and stay converted for the next life.”

However, Gary Lange wrote, “As a psychotherapist, I am the eternal optimist; since I have seen many people make major changes in their lives. …It is quite possible that she was drunk or loaded at the time of the crime or has a serious psychiatric disorder which may have prompted her actions some 40 years ago.  I’d like to see us find a safe and ethical way to make some amends and put her life in order.”

Richard Wade offered these thought-provoking questions:  “Will she receive better or worse medical treatment behind bars?  …Would she have any privacy or sanctuary from a public that overwhelmingly loathes and despises her?  [Would she need to be] guarded for her own safety? …Who is going to pay for all this?  [And] Will releasing her… open a Pandora’s Box of inmates getting out because of less and less catastrophic illnesses?”

Peace Activist David Krieger said, “I might be influenced by her own acts (not thoughts) of compassion toward others during her time in prison.  On balance, though, I would lean toward justice.”

Sandra Burke pointed to the inspiring speech on violence by Robert Kennedy that I used in a post (“40 Years Ago”) on June 6, and then asked, “…what [would] Kennedy say to the prison board?”

All of these observations caused me to think and compare them to my own choice – a choice that I will talk about in the next post.


  1. Author

    I would not be in favor of any kind of early release for this woman. In fact, I believe that she has manipulated the system enough to avoid receiving the death penalty.

    The golden rule would have us determine her penalty for this crime to be death. This country of ours is divided when it comes to this particular punishment. This fact aside, I believe that their is no room for changing a sentence that an individual received through the courts for the crimes they commit simply because this individual is terminally ill. I believe that she should be given the opportunity to consider assisted suicide or euthanasia. This is only legal in 3 states at this time, but is becoming a medical option for chronically-suffering patients. This is the only view besides normal medical care that I would like to see.

  2. Author

    This is a huge debate that could go on and on about what we feel is right and ethical.

    I feel that [Atkins] should not be released because she was sentenced to life in prison for taking someone’s life. Just because she came down with an illness does not give her the right to be released. I feel that if you are sentenced to life in prison that she should die there.

  3. Author

    I love this!

    How true if people actually paid attention to the real cost of everyday things. I have a friend who buys bottled water at $3.50 for 12oz because it has peppermint in it. I prefer a fresh sprig from my own garden and cool water straight from my well. Tastes even better and basically free. Paying attention to the details of our lives that have an impact, big or little, on the world around us can only stand to better the space we call home.

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