Justice vs. Compassion

Published: July 1, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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Here’s your dilemma:

You are an ethicist who has been asked by a prison board to offer an opinion concerning the possible release of an inmate.

A notorious prisoner – convicted of multiple murders – has served almost 40 years of a life sentence.  Recently, the prisoner has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and has petitioned the board to be released.

What do you do?

Although it sounds like an academic exercise, it’s not.  Susan Atkins, one of the Manson family members convicted of participating in the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders has requested a “…compassionate release from prison on the grounds of terminal illness.”

This is the same Susan Atkins who, “…had bragged about mercilessly stabbing the pregnant Sharon Tate and laughed when details of the murders were presented in court.”

In an articulate and compelling post to the “On Faith” blog in the Washington Post entitled, “Manson, Murder and Mercy,” Associate Professor of Religious Studies Matthew Schmalz offers some interesting commentary.

“In 1974, Atkins claimed that she heard God’s audible voice saying that her sins had been forgiven… and has [since] led an exemplary life in prison.

“It is tempting to dismiss these religious claims as all too convenient,” Schmalz writes.  “Moreover, Atkins has already received considerably more mercy than did her victims.”  However, he adds, “I corresponded with Susan Atkins over a two-year period before her illness.  What struck me always was her quite sophisticated, and self-conscious, articulation of Christian understandings of grace as ‘God’s unmerited love.’”

Within short order, the blog “comments” soared from 52 to more than 350 (at last count).  As you can imagine, due to the particularly heinous nature of her crimes, most of the comments offer little or no leniency.

Most sounded like this:  “Manson and his killer followers showed no mercy whatsoever to their victims. None should be shown to Susan Atkins who was one of the most vicious murderers in the gang.”

Some cited precedent:  “John Gotti was dying of cancer and we didn’t let him out. Why are we supposed to feel this special sympathy for Atkins?”

Then, there was this comment: “I am surprised to see all of the arguments to withhold mercy from Atkins on the basis that she withheld mercy from her victims… if mercy is only dispensed to the merciful, then it is not mercy.”

So, who’s right?  How should we decide?

When you have a conflict between two ethical values like justice and compassion, how do you determine a “greater good”?  How can you even consider a “greater good” unless it includes justice?

The most fundamental of moral tenets, the Golden Rule, calls for us to “treat others as you would like to be treated.”  On that basis, the decision is clear.  Miss Atkins should be released.

But who stands for justice?

The great civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. warned, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Okay, but how might Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama decide the matter?  Certainly, they would urge compassion.

Yes, but the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn – no slouch to first-hand experience with injustice – wrote that, “Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice.”

But Eleanor Roosevelt asked, “When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?”


I could go back and forth endlessly, but that’s why it’s called a dilemma.

So, here’s your job.  Imagine that you’re an ethicist who has been asked to deliver a well-considered opinion to the prison board based on your background and beliefs in ethical decision making.  Remember, you are not there to offer a personal opinion, but a professional one.

Who would you want to speak to?  What questions would you ask?  What would your decision be and why?

Send me your comments by Saturday so I can include them in Monday’s post along with my own thoughts.


  1. Author

    This is an unusual dilemma. And yet it does not seem that unusual to answer. The answer should be obvious. If I was speaking to either pro-leniency or the anti-lenient, my answer would be the same.
    Susan was given a “death” sentence, which was commuted to “Life with the possibility of Parole.” There is the leniency given by the “mercifully compassionate” people. Her sentence of Life is the sentence handed out by our judicial system. It did not stipulate that if she became terminally ill she would be considered for more leniency. This is the sentence that was meted out. This argument has nothing to do with her exemplerary conduct while serving a prison term and it has nothing to do with her “conversion,” it does have to do with serving her sentence.

    This being said, an argument can be made that once in a comatose state with no chance of recovery, it would serve all interested parties to allow her release if the family would be willing to pick up and take posession of her body. This should be allowed for everyone in this position for humanity’s sake.

  2. Author

    I would want to ascertain the precedent for the release of a convicted murderer on the grounds of compassion. I don’t think I would be swayed in the decision by changes in her personal religious or spiritual convictions. If anything, 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. But perhaps there is a middle road in which she could have visitors in prison for longer periods and with more privacy, but not be granted a release from prison.

  3. Author

    Firstly, I wonder if characterizing this decision as being between justice and compassion is a false dichotomy. There are other ways one might look at it, such as simply a legal matter, interpreting the laws and policies regarding the early release of prisoners for various reasons, and any precedents from similar cases. The ghastly particulars of this prisoner s past and the sad particulars of her future prospects might be irrelevant or at least less important from that point of view.

    But justice vs. compassion is the framework of the question posed. The first thing to do then is to clarify these two terms. Because they have roots in philosophy, people certainly do not universally agree on their meanings, so rushing to the dictionary probably won t help much. Besides, we all have our uniquely personal visceral responses to these concepts which are not going to be influenced much by Mr. Webster. So I would approach them pragmatically and consider what would actually happen if we were to be swayed by one of those words more than the other.

    The compassionate thing might on the surface seem to be to simply release her, but we need to consider if that really would have an effect on her life that we would call compassionate. If our purpose is to give her the comfort, dignity and privacy of her own home where she can live out her last days and presumably die in less distress than she would have in prison, then we need to ask some questions: Does she even have a home after 39 years in prison? If not, where would she live? Would she have any privacy or sanctuary from a public that overwhelmingly loathes and despises her? If her health permitted it, could she ever appear in public or would she have to remain hidden away and guarded for her own safety? Would that situation begin to resemble prison? How long is the expected time she has left? Who would take care of her as she became more ill? Who is going to pay for all this? Would she be able to afford in-home hospice care or would she end up dying in an instit ution anyway, with a guard outside the door?

    The adage, The road to hell is paved with good intentions comes to mind. Our blessing might be just another curse. We cannot call ourselves compassionate if we simply release her but we take no responsibility for the actual consequences that would have on her well being.

    Now to justice. In my mind, the most preferable justice is restoring intact that which was wrongfully taken. Unfortunately, the lives of Roman, Sharon and her unborn son Paul cannot be restored, so we are reduced to less preferable forms of justice. Some will see justice as receiving the legally prescribed consequences of breaking laws, while others will unapologetically see it as naked vengeance. As with compassion, the dictionary probably stays on the shelf because definitions won t satisfy our personal, internal sense of justice.

    To serve either of these second choice forms of justice, the heinous details of her crime and her subsequent behavior in prison do come into relevancy. Few would disagree that what she did was incomprehensibly unspeakable, and her gleeful defiance during her trial is well documented.

    Leading an exemplary life in prison is not necessarily an impressive testimonial, since her life is extremely controlled and strictly monitored. She behaves herself while locked up and surrounded by armed guards and dangerous inmates? So what?

    Jailhouse conversions are the best way to bring out the cynical side of all of us. She found God s unmerited love. If that isn t merely what she thinks will warm the hearts of the prison board but is a genuine testament of her salvation, then perhaps we should take her at her word. If she is truly saved, then it doesn t matter where she dies, does it?

    Finally, there is the issue of what exactly is meant by a terminal illness? Does that mean she will die within a few days? Weeks? Months? Years? Without specific time parameters, are we all not afflicted with a terminal illness? Lifers die in prison every day. Is her illness a special case because of the pain or disability she will suffer?

    To consider the pragmatic consequences of keeping Atkins in prison for the rest of her days, again there are many questions that must be answered first: Will she receive better or worse medical treatment behind bars? Will she be more or less comfortable in the familiar surroundings where she has spent the last two thirds of her life? Will the public pay more or less taxes to hospice and guard her in prison or outside? If we buy into the idea that the prospect of life in prison is a deterrent to would-be killers, would letting her out shortly before her death defeat that message, or would it matter after 39 years? Regardless of her good or bad behavior in prison, could she still be a danger to others if she is released? Will releasing her set legal precedents and open up a Pandora s box of inmates getting out because of less and less catastrophic illnesses?

    If your second choice form of justice is that the legal consequences are applied, then will it be better served by her dying in or out of prison? If your second choice form of justice is that vengance is inflicted, will it be significantly reduced by her dying outside?

    These questions, both on the compassion side as well as the justice side are what I would need answered first before I could make a recommendation. Ironically, it could very well be that this process would take so long that Atkins would let us off the hook by dying before we get it all settled.

  4. Author

    As a psychotherapist, I am the eternal optimist, since I have seen many people make major changes in their lives. She is female and much older now, so I am sure she has softened. It is 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. Perhaps she could be released to a minimum security situation or home with a family member and wearing an ankle braclet. We already pay for the “housing” and not rehabilitation of so many criminals. Lets lighten our load and give them a chance to redeem themselves.

  5. Author

    If she had received the death penalty, and it had been carried out, we wouldn’t have an “ethics” problem. None other than H.L.Mencken said, “Capital punishment has probably been responsible for a good deal of human progress, since the majority of those executed were of the sort whose departures for bliss eternal improved the average intelligence and decency of the race.” She was spared and got “a life sentence.” No ethical dilemma. Serve it and stay converted for the next life.

    Sounds hard nosed, but that is my belief. Indeed, just as good men die in war for a cause, (as in 58,000 for a ? cause in Vietnam), I am not deterred by the fact that occasional innocent prisoners are executed when death penalties are carried out swiftly after trial and sentence. The national statistics on murder and rape (once a capital crime) in the USA clearly show a straight line up about 1946 when death penalties began to be drawn out by litigation and states began ceasing to allow it even for murder 1. The cause was, in my mind, worth it. Today, we are numb to murder…such as “just another little girl raped and killed
    and dumped in Vermont.” Big deal.

  6. Author

    “Here’s your dilemma: You are an ethicist who has been asked by a prison board to offer an opinion concerning the possible release of an inmate.”

    OK, before I do that I have to clear some brush:

    1. Like all cultures, there are certain dichotomies that have to be resolved (i.e.: Individual vs. community). 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.

    So any ethical consideration has to be measured against this principle, which rules out “what about the victim’s families” as a valid argument for continuing her punishment. In order to have an ethical basis, arguments pro or con must be grounded in Atkins transgressions against the larger community.

    2. On the other side of the dichotomy, 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 hero always show mercy, saying something like “you’re not worth killing,” and walks away. It is only when the villain rejects this compassion and tries to shoot the hero in the back that they die, ideally by precipitating their own death in the final act of rejection of society’s norms. 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.

    3. Since the assignment is to act as an ethicist, we’ll remove the one practical argument for keeping Atkins in Jail. In your essay, you quoted Matthew Schmalz: “In 1974, Atkins claimed that she heard God’s audible voice saying that her sins had been forgiven… and has [since] led an exemplary life in prison.” With all respect to the redemptive power of religion; when you are dealing with someone who committed what is commonly regarded as a senseless” murder, the claim that she heard the audible voice of God is not a terrific argument for release, no matter how benign the message.

    Since we are asked to deal with the case only on an ethical basis, the ethical position would be to err on the side of caution to protect the community from someone who has demonstrated the willingness to kill complete strangers on nothing more than the instructions of a dominant authority figure (Manson), and who now claims that another dominant authority figure is guiding her life.

    4. On another note: you said in your essay: “The most fundamental of moral tenets, the Golden Rule, calls for us to “treat others as you would like to be treated. On that basis, the decision is clear. Miss Atkins should be released.”

    Actually, that’s a popular, but serious misinterpretation of the concept of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule has nothing to do with what you personally would like. The Golden Rule is about reciprocity.

    A few examples:

    “Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him.” (Pittacus)

    “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.” (Thales)

    “What you wish your neighbors to be to you, such be also to them.” (Sextus the Pythagorean)

    “Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others.” (Isocrates)]

    “What thou avoidest suffering thyself seek not to impose on others.” (Epictetus)

    In other words, the Golden Rule says: “if you don’t want to be stolen from, don’t steal. If you don’t want to be killed, don’t kill.” So the Golden Rule isn’t a valid argument for mercy. Quite the opposite; Under the Golden Rule, by killing someone, you opened the door to being killed yourself. If the Golden Rule is the measure, Atkins killed and she should expect no more than punishment in kind. Ethically, under the Golden Rule, she should remain in prison.

    5. Back to the subject of Atkins’ beliefs. You also quoted Matthew Schmalz as saying “It is tempting to dismiss these religious claims as all too convenient. Moreover, Atkins has already received considerably more mercy than did her victims.” However, he adds, “I corresponded with Susan Atkins over a two-year period before her illness. What struck me always was her quite sophisticated, and self-conscious, articulation of Christian understandings of grace as ‘God’s unmerited love.’”

    If Atkins religious epiphany is real, and she displays what Schmaltz considers a “quite sophisticated, and self-conscious, articulation of Christian understandings of grace…” then she also must have a sophisticated comprehension of the Christian understanding of atonement for one’s sins. It is not enough to be truly sorry for one’s transgressions; you also have to take action to atone for those transgressions. This is demonstrated symbolically in the Roman Catholic sacrament of Confession which includes both the concepts of restitution and acts of penance (usually, but not necessarily symbolic).

    If Atkins is faking a convenient religious epiphany for tactical reasons, Obviously she should remain in prison. However, if her epiphany is genuine, by her own professed ethical standards – as well as those of the larger community – she should understand that accepting and serving out her prison sentence is integral to the atonement process. In fact, it could be argued that the very act of asking for compassionate release is an indicator that Atkins’ moral journey is incomplete.


    Thinking as an ethicist, I reject vengeance, family, and victim-based arguments for continuing Atkins imprisonment.

    Like most Americans, I have a predisposition to give people the benefit of the doubt – compassion – when they demonstrate repentance – as Schmaltz seems to be indicating that Atkins has done.

    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. To me, it appears that giving her compassionate release would be the most unethical option of all.

  7. Author

    I read your July 1st article on Justice vs. Compassion and formed my opinion before finishing the second paragraph. Upon reading the rest of the article I had doubts about my decision, but only for a moment. My first reaction was immediate, you do the crime you pay the time. Atkins victims did not get a second chance at life, so why should she be shown considerably more mercy than them? Especially when she did not show any compassion when committing the crimes? I question why her being terminally ill, or not, should make any difference to the nation as to how she spends her last days on earth? Her illness does not change who she is or what she did. Her life imprisonment sentence was not an act of misery, it was an act of mercy when the alternative was death.

    I reread the inspirational article you wrote on June 6th, 40 Years Ago, and some of Robert Kennedy s words: No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours. … Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily – whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence – whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded. … Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire. … and I wonder, what Kennedy would say to the prison board?

    I can not put my personal feelings aside and give you a professional opinion. Atkins request for freedom defies all ethics in my personal and professional opinion. If indeed, God s audible voice said that her sins had been forgiven, why is she not accepting what punishment she has been dealt and be at peace with God s forgiveness? Why make those that she already caused great suffering from her senseless act of bloodshed, endure more suffering for her own self centered request for freedom? In addition, as I ve mentioned before, she has already been given a second chance at life, and thus been shown mercy when her death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

    You asked who I would want to speak to? I reach out to the Reverend at my church to get his opinion about this conflicted relationship on justice and mercy. He is a very wise and scholarly man with incredible insight into righteousness, forgiveness and mercy. Unfortunately due to the holidays he was not available until long after your deadline.

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