Aug. 7, 2009— -- These days, it is difficult to recognize the face of Susan Atkins, a notorious murderer from the Charles Manson cult. Still imprisoned, she's now gravely ill with brain cancer and asking for mercy that she did not give her victims.
Forty years ago, Atkins, 61, was a member of Charles Manson's "family," and took part in one of the most evil crimes in American history.
Atkins described the crime in blood-curdling detail at a parole hearing 16 years ago.
"She asked me to let her baby live," Atkins said at the time. " I told her I didn't have mercy for her."
Manson ordered Atkins and other "family" members to kill eight people, including Tate and wealthy store owners Leno and Rosemary La Bianca, in the Los Angeles area in August 1969.
Manson masterminded the murders hoping to start a war between blacks and whites, which he believed was foretold in the Beatles' song "Helter Skelter."
In the months after the bloody spree, Manson and his "family" were swept up. Atkins initially agreed to cooperate with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty, but soon she stopped cooperating. Instead, she and other women loyal to Manson disrupted court proceedings and sang songs written by Manson on their way to court. Atkins later testified that Manson was not involved in the Tate murders.
For the crimes, Atkins was sentenced to death along with Manson and three others. When the Supreme Court struck down all death sentences in 1972, Atkins' sentence was automatically commuted to seven years to life with the possibility of parole, the maximum sentence at the time.
In prison, Atkins claimed to be a born again Christian and in 1980 married Donald Lee Laisure who claimed to be wealthy and would work to get her out of prison. She divorced Laisure soon after, and married James Whitehouse, a lawyer who has been devoted to Atkins ever since and has argued for her release.
Should Susan Atkins Be Released?
Today her family argues that Atkins is so ill that she can no longer pose a threat to society.
With the California budget in meltdown, they argue that Atkins should be released. They contend that it would save the state up to $10,000 a day when she's hospitalized. For example, last year alone she spent six months in an intensive care unit at the state's expense.
"She's paralyzed just about 85 percent of her body. She can nod her head and she can look left and right and she has limited use of her left arm," said her husband, who drives 1,000 miles a week to see her.
Now virtually alone and dependent on her devoted husband, Atkins is asking that her life sentence be cut short so she can die at home, rather than in the California prison system where she has been for 39 years. She has been denied parole repeatedly, despite expressions of regret to her victims and their loved ones.
"She's expressed her remorse and grief at every single one of her 17 other parole hearings going back to 1972," says Whitehouse.
In 2002, "Good Morning America's" Diane Sawyer met Atkins in prison while she was working with other women who had life sentences.
She said she was a changed woman.
"I am not the same person that I was when I came in here," she told Sawyer at the time. When asked if she expected to be released from prison, Atkins replied, "I would like to be out some day."
Still clinging to that hope, Atkins and her family will again appear before a parole board this September to make their plea official.
But the Manson victims' families and their advocates dismiss economics as a good reason for early release.
"The very release of a killer like that … sends a message to people that this life sentence doesn't mean a life sentence, that the victims' families are going to have to go through this over and over and over again," said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, an advocate for the victims. "She needs to, in grace and dignity, finish her sentence."
ABC News' Steven Jean contributed to this report