The on-going fascination with the Manson "Family" murders and the fate of the perpetrators is something I find fascinating. For those who are too young to remember, Charles Manson was the schizophrenic leader of a group of young men and women bent on starting a race war, the details of which Manson insisted he heard in the Beatles' song "Helter Skelter", which was Paul's song about riding a roller coaster stoned. While the murders of the LaBiancas was heinous, the murder of B-movie starlet and pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski pushed the murders from local news in LA to national attention. District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi and theatrical psycho Charles Manson seemed suited for one another, vying for the court's and the public's attention.
The "Family" became well-known in detail after Bugliosi published a book, in which he painted Manson as some kind of Satanic presence in the lives of those around him. Further notoriety was gained when "Family" fugitive Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme attempted to assassinate Pres. Gerald Ford on orders she claimed she received psychically from Manson.
In 1988, during a special on non-existent Satanism, "journalist" Geraldo Rivera "interviewed" Manson in prison, and was dumb enough to fall for Manson's routine (just as Don Wildmon fell for Ted Bundy's "confession" that a pornography addiction was the reason for his own reign of terror, ignoring all the classic signs of developing sociopathology and psychopathology in his biography; fools will be fooled is the lesson from these two examples).
Now, Susan Atkins, the one who actually stabbed Tate to death, is pleading for release as she sits in prison. As has been noted, at some point in her prison life, she converted to Christianity and has led an exemplary life. She has even worked to help youth whose life might end up paralleling her own. Many words have been spilled on the issue of whether or not she should be released, including the On Faith forum at the Washington Post.
First, I have no opinion on whether or not Atkins should be released. That decision is up to the parole board and the governor of California, and should be determined based upon the facts of her present condition, mitigated by any expressions of remorse she may have made concerning the horrid murders she committed nearly 40 years ago.
Second, I think the issue of grace as a theological concept and religious practice, and mercy as a legal question are related, but should never be equated. The issue of forgiveness - is Susan Atkins forgiven for her heinous crime by God? A faithful Christian would say, in all likelihood, yet - is far different from the issue of mercy - should Susan Atkins be released from prison so she won't die there? One can argue the merits of the second question based upon facts, as I stated above. The former question, however, is an issue of faith that reasonable people, or people from different traditions, can disagree upon. I will just add, for the record, that convicted murderers have become saints (like that tent-maker Saul in the Bible).
When Lisa and I first married, we disagreed on the death penalty; I considered it a necessary punishment for the most heinous of criminals, although I was troubled by the way it was and continues to be used. I have since converted to her opposition, but one case early in our life together was a source of conflict. About a year after we were married, John Wayne Gacey was executed. Lisa felt this was wrong, and while I struggle to say I agree now with her, at the time I thought it not only right but just for Gacey to die. Indeed, the only part I thought unjust about it was the relative ease of his own death; considering the fear and suffering he caused, his own unceremonious death hardly counted.
I repeat all this because it was in discussing the Gacey case that I started to change my mind. Lisa saw a necessary link between justice and grace. I did not. I still do not. My opposition to the death penalty is pragmatic rather than principled (as currently applied, it is racially- and class-biased; there have been far too many death-row inmates freed on what should have been easily accessible exculpatory evidence for me to be sanguine about the oft-touted claim that no innocent individual has ever been executed). Part of that pragmatism leads me to question whether there is, or should be, a religious component to the question of mercy for Atkins. Obviously, the whole issue of her ultimate status before God is a matter of faith, and something between her and God alone. I do not believe, however, that should have any bearing on whether or not she dies outside a prison's walls.
Again, I have no opinion, because I am unacquainted with the facts beyond what I read in news reports. I would just say that grace from God is one thing; mercy from the state another, and the two should always be kept separate.