Sharon Tate's cancer-stricken killer pleads: 'Let me die outside prison'

Topless dancer who joined deadly Manson family has only months to live

The Observer, UK/June 15, 2008

A member of the infamous 'Manson Family', who murdered the actress Sharon Tate in August 1969, could soon be released from jail because she is dying of cancer. Susan Atkins, a follower of Sixties cult leader Charles Manson, has less than six months to live and is being considered for compassionate leave so that can she die outside prison. She is believed to be suffering from the final stages of brain cancer and is under constant medical treatment.

The case is likely to be controversial because the Manson murders still cast a long shadow in the annals of American crime. At the end of the Sixties, members of Manson's cult committed a wave of killings across southern California. The serial murders became a symbol for the end of the hippie era.

Since her conviction, Atkins has been a model prisoner. She has even married in jail, becoming the wife of the lawyer who represented her at her last parole hearing. She is a born-again Christian who helps out with prison inmate programmes, including Alcoholic Anonymous. She has now served 37 years in jail, which is longer than any other female prisoner in the state.

But the sheer infamy of the Manson case may hurt her cause, as it has derailed all her previous parole attempts. Manson, whose hippie cult preached free love and bloody revolution, is one of the seminal figures of the Sixties. He was a failed musician who drifted around the edge of the counter-culture scene in California until he collected a band of misfits and hippies into a cult. Atkins, a former topless dancer, was one of his most ardent followers. She was at the forefront of slaying Tate, who was married to the film director Roman Polanski and heavily pregnant with his child.

The Manson family attacked her home, killing her and four others. Atkins herself stabbed Tate to death, ignoring Tate's pleas for mercy. At a parole hearing in 1993, Atkins told officials: 'She asked me to let her baby live. I told her I didn't have mercy for her.' After killing her, Atkins tasted the dead woman's blood and used it to write the word 'Pig' on the wall. Manson's aim in sending his followers to kill Tate and others was to start a race war - Manson assumed that black power groups would be blamed.

Relatives of Tate and other victims of the cult are opposing Atkins's release, or that of any other members of the family or Manson. 'They are serial killers and they were convicted to die and they need to stay incarcerated,' Debra Tate, the actress's sister, told the Los Angeles Times.

Despite the fact that the murder happened almost 40 years ago, there is a still a fascination with anything to do with Manson. Last month, police investigators and forensic experts began a dig on an isolated desert ranch in southern California near Death Valley, the Manson gang's last hideout.

They were responding to reports that bodies could have been buried on the isolated land when the cult lived there. The news created nationwide headlines, but so far no new graves have been found.

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