My attention was recently caught by a news report about Susan Atkins, a member of the so-called Manson Family who took part in the murders of actress Sharon Tate and eight other persons in the summer of 1969. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has announced that the 60-year-old Atkins is dying from terminal brain cancer.
To my amazement, I felt compassion for Susan Atkins. She requested permission to die in the home of her husband, James Whitehouse, but that request was denied. I have always opposed her parole, and yet I found myself wondering why so many people were determined to drive in the last nail.
Wouldn’t some sort of redemption be found by showing her the mercy that she denied to her victims?
As I pondered Atkins’ situation, similar examples came to mind. First was Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the killers of Matthew Shepard. Both of these men could have received death sentences, but the Shepard family requested that they be given life imprisonment without hope of parole, because Matthew was an opponent of capital punishment. I’ve never forgotten the words of Matthew’s father as he addressed the young men after their sentencing: “You will have to live with what you have done every day of the rest of your lives.”
In another example, I recalled my first reaction to killers of James Byrd Jr. in 1998: “You bring the chains, and I’ll drive the truck.” I wanted those men to suffer all of Byrd’s pain and fear. I wanted them to suffer more and longer than he had.
Recent studies show that revenge is a natural emotion for mankind. Indeed, pleasurable chemicals flood through our bodies, as we see the tables turned on those who persecute and torment us or others. Yet, although revenge is a natural emotion, is it an effective one?
Members of victims’ families, after witnessing the executions of those who took their loved ones’ lives, often discover a lack of closure. Instead, they are deeply aware that their loved ones will never return, and their lives have not changed.
When we as a society execute a murderer, perhaps we do nothing more than dispose of an already damaged human being. Rose Kennedy, the mother of Senator Robert Kennedy, was once asked about Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of murdering her son in June 1968. She replied, “I don’t believe that a healthy person purposely murders the father of 11 children.”
For years, Kennedy assassination theorists expressed frustration that Jacqueline Kennedy never supported further investigation into the death of her husband. However, to close friends, she explained in her uncomplicated form of wisdom: “Nothing will bring back Jack.”
Atkins was originally sentenced to die, but escaped execution by a 1972 California Supreme Court ruling. During the 39 years that she has been a prisoner, she has undergone an amazing change. Corrections officials have consistently described her as a model prisoner, cheerful and helpful, and a life-changing influence on many other inmates.
In 2002, Atkins sat down with journalist Diane Sawyer. As I viewed the interview recently on YouTube, I was startled to see a woman with heavily graying hair, soft eyes, and a contemplative manner. She did not offer an excuse for her actions—“There is none,” she said quietly, eyes glistening. She talked of the son she will never see. She choked at the mention of Charles Manson. Atkins expressed the deepest of remorse for what she did—to the victims, to their families, to the greater society. If her statements weren’t genuine, then she deserves an Academy Award.
Over the past four decades, the newsreels of Atkins in a baby-doll dress, singing on the way to her trial, have haunted me. Yet, as I watched the Sawyer interview, I found a sense of closure that has always evaded me. The young woman who had done monstrous things was, after all, not a monster. Perhaps in most cases, killers are not monsters. But they are tragically broken and misguided.
One of the basic arguments for capital punishment is that it serves as a deterrent. If that were really true, why do murders keep occurring? And since they do, how can we possibly discover what drives human beings to kill if we execute them?
Capital punishment is, in my mind, more about revenge than justice. The religious fundamentalists and political conservatives who support it so strongly are the same people who celebrate the love of Jesus. But they seem to have forgotten that while hanging on that Roman cross, Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him, because “they know not what they do.”
As we face the election of a new president this fall, keep in mind the stance of the two major candidates regarding capital punishment. Both John McCain and Barack Obama support the death penalty. Senator McCain supports a wide use. Senator Obama supports a very narrow use.
I’ve read that Aaron McKinney still shows no remorse for killing Matthew Shepard, that he reportedly brags in prison that he is “the one who killed the fag.” Perhaps Aaron will never feel remorse. But life has a way of changing all of us, as we age and look back on our lives. It’s still possible that some day Aaron will help provide wisdom to avert future homophobic killings. Certainly it’s worth hoping for.
Brandon Wolf founded the online group, Houston Activist Network (Han-Net), which is now LoneStarActivists.