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Susan Denise Atkins (May 7th, 1948 – September 24th, 2009) was a convicted American murderer who was a member of the "The Family", led by Charles Manson. Over a period of five weeks in the summer of 1969, Manson and his followers carried out one of the most sadistic and gruesome killing sprees in American history. Atkins was convicted for her participation in eight of these killings, including the most notorious, the "Tate/LaBianca" murders. She was sentenced to death, which was subsequently commuted to life in prison. Atkins was the longest-incarcerated female inmate in the California penal system, having been denied parole 18 times.
The most infamous incident of Atkins career was the Tate/LaBianca murders.
Five people were murdered at the Beverly Hills home where Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate lived: Tate (who was eight months pregnant), Steven Parent, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger. Polanski was in Europe finishing work on a film project.
Atkins had stabbed Tate knowing that she was pregnant. She later stated at her trial that she had stabbed Tate because she was "sick of listening to her, pleading and begging, begging and pleading". Forensic evidence indicated that the murders were brutal. Just prior to leaving the residence, Atkins wrote "PIG" on the front door in Sharon Tate's blood.
The following night, August 10, 1969, Manson commented that the murders at the Tate residence had been too messy and announced he'd have to take his followers out and "show them how it's done". Manson called Atkins, Krenwinkel, Watson, Linda Kasabian, Leslie Van Houten, and Steve "Clem" Grogan, and they left Spahn's Ranch. Driving most of the night, he eventually found the home of grocery store owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in Loz Feliz, a section of northeastern Los Angeles. Manson and Watson entered the home and tied the couple up at gunpoint, winning their compliance by convincing them they were only going to be robbed. He then went back to the car and sent Krenwinkel and Van Houten inside to do as Tex said, once again directing them to leave writings in blood, and to hitchhike back to Spahn's Ranch.
Arrest and Imprisonment
- "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."
- —Sharon Tate's father on Atkins at the trial
Not long after the murders, the Family were all caught and arrested for auto theft.
While in jail, Atkins befriended two middle-aged career criminals to whom she confessed her participation in the Tate/LaBianca murders, telling the women that she had stabbed Tate and tasted Tate's blood. She was reported to the authorities and this, combined with information from other sources, led to the arrests of Atkins and others involved in the Tate/LaBianca murders (Van Houten, Krenwinkel, Kasabian, and Watson).
Throughout the trial, Atkins and her co-defendants attempted to disrupt proceedings and were noted for both their lack of remorse for their victims and lack of concern for their own fate. They sang Manson-penned songs while being led to the courtroom. All four defendants were sentenced to death on March 29, 1971.
Atkins agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for dropping the death penalty, and she then testified before the grand jury as to what had transpired on the nights of August 8 and 9, 1969.
During the sentencing phase of the trial, Atkins testified that she stabbed Tate. She stated that she had stabbed Tate because she was "sick of listening to her, pleading and begging, begging and pleading".
Atkins also testified that Tate had pleaded for her life and that of her unborn child, to which Atkins replied, "Women, I have no mercy for you.", resulting in Atkins murdering her.
When asked if she were willing to testify knowing that she was not being given immunity, was not being freed of any of the charges, and might incriminate herself in her trial testimony, she responded, "I understand this, and my life doesn't mean that much to me, I just want to see what is taken care of".
After the Tate/LaBianca trial, Atkins was convicted for the murder of musician Gary Hinman which she pleaded guilty to.
- —Atkins's final words while dying at the Central California Women's facility
From 1974 onwards, Atkins stated she was a born-again Christian after seeing a vision of Jesus Christ in her cell. She became active in prison programs, teaching classes and received two commendations for assisting in emergency health interventions with other inmates, one of which was a suicide attempt. Atkins published her autobiography, Child of Satan, Child of God, in 1977 in which she recounted the time she spent with Manson and the family, her religious conversion, and her prison experiences, (although she pocketed the money she made from it without a second thought for the victim's families).
Atkins married twice while in prison. In 1981, she married Donald Lee Laisure for his money after he claimed to be a billionaire, but after finding out he lied the two divorced. She again, in 1987, to a man fifteen years her junior, James Whitehouse, a Harvard graduate, who represented Atkins at her 2000 and 2005 parole hearings. He maintained a website dedicated to her legal representation in which he spread some slander.
In 2002, Atkins filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that she was a "political prisoner" due to the repeated denials of her parole requests regardless of her suitability.
After this, there were mixed opinions on Atkins' release. District Attorney Steve Cooley stated that he was strongly opposed to the release, stating that she "failed to demonstrate genuine remorse and lacks insight and understanding of the gravity of her crimes." Pam Turner, a niece of Sharon Tate, also opposed Atkins' release, stating, "If she were capable of comprehending what our family's been through, she would be ashamed to come before this parole board and ask such a request." Gloria Goodwin Killian, a legal researcher and prisoner advocate, spoke in support for Atkins' compassionate release, arguing, "Susan has been punished all that she can be. Short of going out to the hospital and physically torturing her, there is nothing left anyone can do to her. The people who are suffering are the people you see in this room today."
In April 2008, Atkins had been hospitalized for more than a month with terminal brain cancer. One leg had been amputated. Atkins was given less than six months to live and subsequently requested a "compassionate release" from prison. In June, Atkins' attorney, Eric P. Lampel, stated that Atkins' condition had deteriorated to the point that she was paralyzed on one side, could only talk "a little bit", and could not sit up in bed without assistance.
Prior to her 2009 parole hearing, a website maintained by Atkins' husband claimed that she was paralyzed over 85 percent of her body and unable to sit up or be transferred to a wheelchair. For the eighteenth and final time, Atkins was denied parole on September 2, 2009.
She finally died on September 24, 2009 after a life of failed attempts to gain parole. Her last words were "Amen".