By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
July 19, 2008
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
It was August 1969, the weekend of Woodstock.
I was a 20-year-old entering my senior year in college and engaged to be married in three weeks. My college band and I were in Los Angeles and getting ready to perform on national television on the Arthur Godfrey All American College Show (we actually made it to the semi-finals). The city was reeling from the gruesome news of the Tate/LaBianca murders, perpetrated by the followers of Charles Manson.
One of those arrested and eventually convicted in the multiple murders was 20-year-old Susan Atkins. Atkins had confessed her involvement to a cellmate while incarcerated. She admitted to stabbing the pregnant actress, Sharon Tate, 16 times as Tate begged her to spare her unborn child.
Atkins was originally sentenced to die, but that sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1972 when the United States Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional. Now 60-years-old, she is the longest serving female inmate in the California penal system.
Like others who were convicted with Manson, Atkins has been repeatedly denied parole. She now lies in a hospital bed, dying of brain cancer. One leg has been amputated. Her medical costs borne by the state since March have exceeded $1.5 million and the cost of guarding her hospital room has surpassed $300,000.
With less than six months to live, she recently petitioned the Board of Parole for what is known in that state as compassionate release. The board denied her request.
Despite her debilitated state, families of her victims, as well as Governor Schwarzenegger, have supported the board's decision to require her to die a prisoner.
Connecticut has a similar provision for early release of prisoners with severe medical conditions. Here it is known as medical parole. Section 54-131a - 131g authorizes the Board of Pardons and Parole to grant medical parole to an inmate, other than one sentenced for a capital crime, provided the inmate suffers from a terminal illness, and is so incapacitated by the illness that he/she is incapable of posing a threat to society.
Atkins is barely able to sit up in her bed; and, with only one leg, is not ambulatory. In this state she would fulfill all the statutory qualifications for medical parole. She is married now and her husband, also her attorney, has produced volumes of medical evidence supporting her condition. He has argued on her behalf that in the nearly 40 years she has been imprisoned she has become a born again Christian and has worked with at-risk youth, violent crime victims and homeless children. No longer the deranged disciple of Manson, she is condemned to die a prisoner.
Many states have a similar mechanism. While some place the decision in the hands of a parole board, others have created a mechanism within the corrections department for review of such requests. In a small percentage, the courts have the ultimate authority.
In every instance, however, the process is cumbersome. Most corrections departments are reluctant to release dying inmates. While final retribution remains at the core of this reluctance, the financial burden on taxpayers is staggering. Treatment, even palliative, of terminal inmates strains an already over-burdened prison medical system.
Allowing a terminally ill inmate to die at home doesn't denigrate the memory of the victims. It is a display of mercy that the individual may not deserve, but in a society of laws it demonstrates that justice is tempered with compassion.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com