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Let Me Die in Laguna Beach
Tony Rackauckas wades into the battle over Manson family killer Susan Atkins’ dying wish
It’s rare for Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to agree with the Los Angeles Times editorial board on anything. Credit Susan Atkins, the imprisoned former Charles Manson family member whose crimes shocked the nation in the summer of 1969, for allowing these ideological enemies to stumble onto common ground.
California’s Board of Parole will meet on July 15 to decide if Atkins, 60, qualifies for “compassionate release” from prison. The parole program is available to inmates who, like Atkins—an exemplary prisoner for nearly four decades—have six months or less to live or to those in a coma or vegetative state. In March, doctors were unsuccessful in attempts to remove Atkins’ brain tumor. They’ve also amputated one of her legs.
It’s anyone’s guess what the politically appointed board will do. It has rejected Atkins’ parole requests 11 times in 37 years. This time, however, she finally has won the support of famed Manson Family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, author of Helter Skelter, which chronicled the gang’s crime spree.
But Atkins gained an even bigger critic. After learning of the special parole request, the Times published a June editorial, “No Mercy.” It advised the parole board to keep her locked up, even while acknowledging she no longer poses a threat to society. “Atkins gravely wounded our collective peace, and society has a right, even the obligation, to exact vengeance,” the state’s largest daily newspaper opined. “For some criminals, including Atkins, the crime is so great that the price should be imprisonment until death.”
The vengeance line infuriated Eric P. Lampel, the veteran Irvine-based defense lawyer representing Atkins. He wrote to the Times, ridiculing the paper’s attitude and demanding corrections. The paper declined to cooperate. In a two-page letter to the paper, Lampel listed ways he claims the Times botched facts to reach its conclusion. They include:
• Atkins’ current sentence is seven years to life with the possibility of parole, not a life sentence.
• Atkins didn’t initiate the compassionate-release request; prison doctors did based on her rapidly declining condition.
• Although a co-conspirator, Atkins did not stab pregnant actress Sharon Tate to death; it was Charles “Tex” Watson, another Manson family member.
I’m not sure it is advisable for Atkins to minimize her role in the deaths now, but Lampel is determined to confront what he sees as a smear attack on his client in her final days.
“The Times terribly minimizes Susan’s efforts in her 37 years behind bars to apologize to the victims and their families, work toward helping herself and then others, paying restitution, and all the other honors and accomplishments she has received while incarcerated,” Lampel wrote in his letter titled, “No Mercy for Idiot Editors at the LA Times.” “You may not like [Atkins’] sentence and may disagree with it, but it is what it is, and she should have the right to be considered for parole—should have been out decades ago because she was the epitome of a model prisoner.”
Lampel also sent a June 16 letter to Arnold Schwarzenegger, asking him to have the courage to support the release and reminding the governor that he has met Atkins “several times” over the years at the women’s prison in Corona and “knows her as a person, not the media personification.”
“Susan is the longest-serving woman prisoner in the state of California, and her record is not merely immaculate, it is superhuman,” Lampel told the governor. “I beg you to show compassion for Susan’s family and allow them to care for her and to say goodbye to her in her final months.”
The governor’s office did not return my calls seeking comment.
In mid-June, I wrote a blog post that mentioned developments in the case and reminded readers what Atkins told me when I spoke to her six years ago (see “All In the Family,” April 26, 2002). If ever released from prison, she’d like to live in Laguna Beach. “It’s a beautiful place,” she said.
One of my readers was Rackauckas, who has often taken a no-mercy stance with convicted felons—especially killers. He sent a letter to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“I am adamantly opposed to the release of prisoner Susan Atkins,” Rackauckas wrote on June 25. He also summarized the brutal murder of Tate (who was eight months pregnant) and noted his view that Atkins had already been granted mercy in 1972 when the state supreme court overturned all death sentences, including hers.
But if parole-board members release Atkins, Rackauckas doesn’t want her living in Orange County. He says state law suggests that paroled inmates be returned to the county of their last legal residence, which—in Atkins’ case—may be somewhere in the California desert, where she lived with Manson in the 1960s.
“It would be a grave miscarriage of justice to burden the citizens of Orange County by paroling her [here], where she can enjoy the comforts of her husband, home and mercy she did not show Sharon Tate, her unborn baby and seven others,” wrote Rackauckas.
Lampel described the DA’s stance as “his typical uninformed blabbering.”
“Rackauckas makes it sound as if Susan is going to be shopping at South Coast Plaza, dining at the Ritz-Carlton and enjoying picturesque sunset walks on the beach,” he said. “Her left leg has been amputated. She has a brain tumor. She’s dying. She has a couple of months to live. If he’d bothered to check, he would know that even if she’s granted release, she’ll be stuck in a hospital bed.”
Husband James Whitehouse, an attorney who lives in San Juan Capistrano, also scoffs at what he sees as cheap political posturing that ignores another reality: two taxpayer-paid guards watch Atkins around the clock at an undisclosed hospital in the Inland Empire.
“[Her release will] benefit the state of California by eliminating the incredible costs of guarding and treating a person who can no longer even sit themselves up in bed, and for Susan’s family who will otherwise not get the chance to say goodbye to her,” he argues.
“Sorry, but no,” says Susan Kang Schroeder, public-affairs counsel for the DA’s office. “Certain crimes are so heinous you can’t put a cost on punishment. Sharon Tate and the rest of her victims didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.”