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Tables turn as a brutal killer asks for mercy

Cancer or not, some say Susan Atkins does not deserve release.

June 14, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

On an infamous summer night in 1969, young followers of Charles Manson entered a Benedict Canyon mansion and murdered five people gathered on the compound.

Actress Sharon Tate, 8 1/2 months pregnant with the son of director Roman Polanski, begged one of the knife-wielding killers to spare her life. The attacker was Susan Atkins, and her response was cold and unequivocal.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 19, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Manson murders: An article in Saturday's Section A about the Charles Manson murders said victims Leno and Rosemary LaBianca lived in Silver Lake. They lived in Los Feliz.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, June 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Susan Atkins: Articles in the California section on June 13 and in the A section on Saturday about Susan Atkins, a former Charles Manson follower and convicted murderer who is seeking release from prison because of terminal brain cancer, gave her age as 59. She is 60.

"She asked me to let her baby live," Atkins told parole officials in 1993. "I told her I didn't have mercy for her."

Almost 40 years later, it's Atkins who is asking for mercy.

Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and confined to state prison on a life sentence, the 59-year-old is asking to be released from state prison on "compassionate" grounds.

By most accounts, Atkins, a former topless dancer who used to sing in her church choir, was one of Manson's fiercest disciples. After stabbing and killing Tate, prosecutors said Atkins tasted the actress' blood and used it to write "PIG" on the front door. During her trial, which took more than nine months, Atkins showed no remorse and maintained utter devotion to Manson, whom she called "Jesus Christ," "the devil" and "the soul." During sentencing, she taunted the court by saying, "You'd best lock your doors and watch your own kids."

Atkins was convicted of killing Tate and also of stabbing musician Gary Hinman to death two weeks before the Tate murder. The night after the Tate murders, members of the so-called Manson family -- but not Atkins -- broke into a home in the hills of Silver Lake, killing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Behind bars, Atkins has been a model prisoner who for the last 21 years has been married to an Orange County attorney who represented her at her last parole hearing. She has been in state prison for 37 years, longer than any other female inmate.

Debra Tate, the actress' sister and only surviving relative, strongly opposes the release of Atkins or any members of the Manson family.

"They are serial killers and they were convicted to die and they need to stay incarcerated," she said. "People don't just become cured from being sociopaths. There's no deprogramming, no pills, no drugs that make that go away."

Margaret DiMaria, the sister of Jay Sebring, a hairdresser who was killed at the Benedict Canyon home, agreed.

"It is most unfortunate that Ms. Atkins now suffers a terminal illness. However, in the eyes of the law and in memory of her victims, I fail to see how one thing correlates to the other," DiMaria and her son Anthony said in a statement Friday. "She repeatedly committed crimes requiring evil premeditation and executed them in a cavalier manner that afforded her victims no mercy. The sentence Ms. Atkins now serves should not be mitigated because fate has struck this blow."

But Atkins' petition has won some guarded support from unlikely quarters, including Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who successfully sought the death penalty for Atkins.

"Under these unique circumstances, told she has only about six months to live . . . . I don't have any objection to her being released," he said. "She has paid substantially, though not completely, for her horrendous crimes. Paying completely would mean imposing the death penalty."

Atkins' death sentence was automatically commuted to a life term after the state Supreme Court overturned capital punishment in 1972. But cancer has become another kind of death sentence, Bugliosi said, noting that she has already had a leg amputated.

Bugliosi said his decision to support Atkins' release wasn't easy.

"She told me out of her own mouth that Sharon Tate begged for her life, 'Please let me live, so I can have my baby,' " Bugliosi recalled. "And she said, 'I don't have mercy for you. . . . You're going to die.' And now, she wants mercy?"

Her request for a compassionate release has already been approved by the California Institution for Women in Corona, where she was housed from April 23, 1971, to March 18 of this year, when she was admitted to a local hospital. But it must also be approved by the state parole board, which will take up the case in coming months.

If the board approves her release -- and that's far from a sure bet -- a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge would have to sign off on it. Since 1991, about a third of compassionate release requests have been granted, though in recent years the numbers have been smaller.

The rampage by the Manson family in 1969 left eight people dead and Los Angeles shaken, and by many accounts it ended the "flower power" era of the '60s.

"The murders forced L.A.'s counterculturalists to confront the possibility that not everyone with long hair under 30 was their brother," author Michael Walker wrote in his book "Laurel Canyon."

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