Manson Family Killer With Brain Cancer Seeks Compassionate Release

Susan Atkins talks about crimes and remorse in exclusive Diane Sawyer interview.


June 16, 2008 — -- Susan Atkins, one of the Manson "family" members convicted in the 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others, is dying of brain cancer and asking to be released from a California prison after 37 years behind bars.

Doctors have told Atkins, now 60, she has six months to live, and she and her family are asking the corrections department for a "compassionate release."

"It's ridiculous to continue to pay millions of dollars to keep her in custody when she can't even sit up in bed," says Atkins' husband, James Whitehouse.

Atkins has been incarcerated at the California Institution for Women at Corona for 37 years – longer than any other female inmate in state history — and denied parole 11 times. Atkins told Diane Sawyer in a 2002 interview that she still hoped she would someday be released.

"I would like to be out some day. I hope to be out some day. And it's amazing that I still have hope. I don't know about expectations anymore," Atkins said.

"You know a person by their behavior, and my behavior in this institution speaks to the change that occurred over 30 years ago. I am not the same person that I was when I came in here."

Atkins met Charles Manson when she just 18. She left home for San Francisco as a teen and eventually moved into a commune in Haight-Ashbury, the epicenter of the hippie movement.

Amid the partying and the drugs, Atkins was searching for more and believed she found it the day Charles Manson came to visit. She became the fourth young girl to join his "family."

She says it was his brainwashing and the influence of drugs that drove her to join in the Tate-LaBianca murders, in which seven people were brutally murdered on Aug. 8 and 9 in 1969.

During the trial, Atkins and her two co-defendants, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, walked arm and arm into court, singing and smiling. Then the three of them came to court with their heads shaved and swastikas carved into their foreheads to support Manson.

Atkins insists that she was insane at that time.

Manson, who is also serving life in prison, says he didn't make any of his followers do anything.

"They did what they wanted to do. They did what they had inside them to do. That's who they were," Manson told Diane Sawyer in a jailhouse interview in 1994.

Atkins said that she physically recoils when she hears Manson's name.

"He is the one person that is the most difficult person in my life to forgive," she told Sawyer in 2002. "I work on that. I don't want to live a life with any unforgiveness in it. So many people lost so much. The victims, the families of the victims, the families of the people who were involved. The community at large, the society at large. Everybody lost."

Atkins also lost a son, who was put up for adoption when he was a year old, following her conviction.

Atkins said she has had no contact with him. "All I know is that he's lived his life unscathed with this. He hasn't been touched by this. And I'm grateful for that."

Atkins has spent her time in jail seeking spiritual enlightenment and helping her fellow inmates.

Sharon Tate's family has said that Atkins' debt will never be repaid.

In a letter to the parole board, Tate's father wrote a letter saying, "Thirty-one years ago I sat in a courtroom with a jury and watched with others. I saw a young woman who giggled, snickered and shouted out insults. Even while testifying about my daughter's last breath, she laughed."

Atkins said there was no way to defend herself against his charges.

"There's only the continued attempt to apologize to him," she said. "Every time I've gone to the board I've made every attempt possible to apologize."

But there is no way to measure remorse, she said.

"It's not something that's tangible," Atkins said. "What remorse is is not sitting in a prison cell for the rest of your life crying over what happened and what you cannot change. Remorse is genuine repentance, turning away from behavior."

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