THE BLOG
11/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Would You Decide? -- Keeping Me Honest

A few hours after posting this commentary on my Web site, I learned that Susan Atkins died late last night.

On Sept. 4, I offered an ethical scenario.

How Would You Decide? asked readers on both my own Web site and Huffington Post to put themselves in the place of parole commissioners for the state of California and decide whether to release Manson follower and convicted murderer Susan Atkins due to a terminal illness.

Part II (Sept. 7), shared with readers the comments I received, and offered my own opinion. In spite of the heinous nature of the Atkins' crime, a majority believed she should be released due to terminal brain cancer.

On Sept. 16, I received the following e-mail from Terry Thornton of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation:

"This is regarding your two-part commentary on inmate Susan Atkins... The Sept. 2 hearing held for Atkins was not a request for compassionate release. Her request for compassionate release was denied in July 2008. The Sept. 2 hearing was her next scheduled hearing to determine whether or not she was suitable for release to parole.

Thornton referred me to the state's Web site for the official press release.

The key point made: "On July 15, 2008, the BPH [Board of Parole Hearings] denied a recommendation for recall of commitment (compassionate release) for Atkins."

However, I was still confused primarily because the news sources that I used in writing my commentary seemed to focus on the fact that the 2009 hearing, once again, addressed Atkins ' release based on her terminal illness. In carefully re-reading a story by Associated Press writer Linda Deutsch, I realized that the AP did, in fact, mention that Atkins' release based on compassion had been discussed and denied in 2008.

I contacted and spoke with Michele Kane and Terry Thornton, both spokeswomen for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Sept. 16.

"Why wasn't it more directly stated in the release," I asked "that the 2009 hearing would not consider 'compassionate release'?"

Thornton and Kane explained that the issue had been dealt with last year at a Board of Parole Hearings meeting and that the 2009 hearing was a "standard parole consideration hearing" for Atkins.

Although Atkins' husband-attorney James Whitehouse once again argued for her release based on compassion, it was not part of the specific criteria the board members were to take under consideration. That issue, Kane and Thornton said, had already been decided last year.

According to Thornton, the criteria that commissioners take into consideration include things like "the offense and whether it was carried out in a heinous, atrocious, cruel, dispassionate or callous manner; whether multiple victims were attacked, injured or killed in the same or separate incidents; previous record of violence, past and present social and criminal history, psychological factors, behavior in prison, signs of remorse, motivation for the crime, age, behavior in prison, and whether the prisoner has made realistic plans for release.

"California law does say," Thornton said, "that 'all relevant, reliable information available to the panel shall be considered in determining suitability for parole.' The panel can consider 'any other information which bears on the prisoner's suitability for release.' I suppose that can include her health.

"However," Thornton adds, "all of the factors - social history, past and present mental state, criminal history, any documented misconduct, past and present attitude toward the crime, treatment, use of special conditions under which the prisoner may safely be released to the community - are to be considered together."

In future reporting, greater effort needs to be made by news organizations to articulate more of the facts of a matter rather than place so much emphasis on the sensational aspects of a case. Although the Department's press release could have been a little more specific itself about this, all reporters, according to Thornton and Kane, were thoroughly briefed that Atkins was up for "her regularly scheduled parole consideration hearing," and that the issue of compassion had already been addressed and denied last year.

Concerning another issue from the same story, in the first commentary (Sept. 4) I offered a series of rhetorical arguments for and against justice, for and against compassion. At one point I wrote, "'If you want to be happy,' the Dalai Lama tells us, 'practice compassion.'

"Yes," I wrote rhetorically, "but I'll bet the Dalai Lama never had close family members murdered in such a brutal manner."

One Huffington Post reader wrote to correct me. "...countless numbers of the Dalai Lama's personal friends and, yes, even his family members, have been tortured [to] death..."

I thanked the person for their correction and returned to a variety of sources on this. However, I just could not find any mention that "close family members" of His Holiness had been murdered. So, I contacted the office of the Dalai Lama.

Tenzin N. Taklha, personal assistant to His Holiness wrote back: "We are not aware of any of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's family members ever being tortured or murdered by the Chinese communists."

In all the commentaries I write, I strive to put forth the most accurate information on every issue. During that process, I always look for at least two trustworthy sources of information. In the case of this story, I used articles from both the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press. In the future, I will work harder.

Although the ethical scenario I offered remains as valid speculation, asking "What would you do?", I do not want to create the false impression that that was the sole criteria parole commissioners faced during Susan Atkins' 2009 parole hearing.

I am grateful to Terry Thornton in coming forward and sending me the initial e-mail about the precise facts of the Susan Atkins case. I also sincerely thank Tenzin N. Taklha, personal assistant to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for his helpful information, as well.

Jim Lichtman writes and speaks on ethics. His regular commentaries can be found at www.ethicsStupid.com