All In the Family

Former Manson Family Disciple Susan Atkins Wants to Be Your Neighbor

"I think I met all requirements for parole in 1983," says Atkins, who noted that the politically appointed parole board became more resistant to the possibility of inmate rehabilitation after Ronald Reagan's political conservatism swept the country in 1981. "My problems with [the parole board] go all the way back to then."

If the board wanted to use them, many psychological evaluations of Atkins could justify her release. Senior prison psychologist W.A. Klebel determined in 1993 that while she remained "suspicious and mistrusting of others," she was "clinically normal" and suffered from "no mental disorder or emotional instability." Atkins, he said, was "cooperative . . . coherent . . . with no deficits in judgment or insight" and a "rather pleasant" inmate.

"Atkins has significantly improved psychologically," said Klebel. "There is no significant relationship between the crimes and any present clinical diagnosis."

Ironically, Klebel's major issue with Atkins—a childhood victim of incest—was that he believed her "elevated levels of activity" in fulfilling the board's demands were too intense. "She attempts to be positive at all times," he concluded. "She has to resist her natural inclination to overcompensate to try to impress others."

"I fear that no matter what I do, it's never going to be enough for them," Atkins said.

It's a reasonable fear. In December 2000, following a three-hour hearing, the board handed Atkins her 10th parole denial. Yes, the board chairman noted, Atkins had racked up a "quite lengthy" list of accomplishments and behaved in an "extremely professional manner." But that was not enough. He claimed she needed "a longer period of observation and treatment." In the end, the three-member panel ruled that she "would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society or a threat to public safety if released from prison."

The board's primary rationale? "The offense was carried out in a violent, ruthless and vicious manner."

"When it comes to me, the board has adopted a policy of breaking their own rules and regulations," Atkins said. "I jump through all their hoops, and then each time I come back after doing everything and more than they asked, they give me a whole different set of hoops to jump through."

The Atkins lawsuit against the BPT asserts that the board's focus on her 33-year-old crimes to the exclusion of her present suitability for freedom is contrary to law. "What happened in 1969 will never change," said Lampel. "But Susan is a different person," and the board can "legally keep her locked up only if she is a risk to society today." He claims that Atkins is a hostage to politics.

"Susan Atkins has a prison record that Wonder Woman couldn't have achieved and is not now, nor has she been for several decades by any stretch of an unbiased mind, a danger to society," said Lampel. "The law applies to all of us in all settings and cannot become subservient to the biases of state administrators or be perverted to serve the political aims of the governor because he has ambitions for higher office and wants to be perceived as 'tough on crime.'"

That argument might not amuse the parole board or the governor. But Lampel has compelling evidence: after his November 1998 election, Davis announced that murderers would never be released during his administration. His policy was summed up in two words: "Forget it."

According to the Associated Press, the BPT has put that policy into action, approving for parole only 1 percent of murderers who have been eligible since 1999; Davis reversed his own board in all but two of those cases. In March, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles freed an inmate convicted of murder 17 years ago after concluding that Davis illegally denied parole.

"Many people who have been convicted of murder in California have served about a third of the prison sentence that Susan has and have then been paroled," said Lampel. "Her continued imprisonment is making a mockery of due process and the U.S. Constitution. It's like Alice in Wonderland."

A governor's spokesman in Sacramento declined to comment.


For three decades, the ferocity of the Manson murders has stayed with Stephen Kay. The veteran Los Angeles deputy district attorney helped then-colleague Bugliosi prosecute the cases and regularly attends BPT parole hearings for Manson crime associates. After each of the former Manson girls makes her case for freedom, Kay passionately reminds members of the board—in painstaking detail—that the killers showed no mercy when they shot or stabbed their innocent victims more than 160 times.

Kay maintains that Atkins is an actress. During one parole hearing, he says he observed a "crying, sympathy-seeking" Atkins "turn it off" when she immediately walked into a private holding cell and coldly screamed at a guard who didn't have her lunch ready. Kay has advised the parole board that "she's a facial chameleon whose features can shift almost imperceptibly from coldness to glowing innocence."

The prosecutor seethes when he hears arguments for Atkins' release from prison.

"How can she murder an eight-and-a-half-months pregnant woman and then talk to the parole board with a straight face?" asked Kay. "It defies comprehension. She should never, never—not in a thousand years—get out. Not after what she has done."

« Previous Page
Next Page »