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.