The Case for Compassionate Release

By: Gerri L. Elder

Although it is the subject of heated arguments by criminal defense attorneys, emotional pleas and tearful courtroom testimony, petitions for compassionate release or medical parole for terminally ill patients are seldom successful.

In a recent California case, Susan Atkins, a member of the Manson family who is dying from brain cancer, was recently denied compassionate release. According to a report by CNN, Atkins is said to be an amputee, paralyzed on one side and doctors say she only has months to live.

Atkins confessed to killing actress Sharon Tate, who was 8 months pregnant at the time and said that Tate begged for her life and for Atkins to spare her unborn child. Atkins stabbed her repeatedly and wrote the word “Pig” on the door of the home that Tate shared with director Roman Polanski.

Atkins also took part in the killings of other people during the 1969 Manson family killing spree and was originally sentenced to death. Her sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty laws as they were written at the time.

Those who argued for Atkins’ compassionate release cited that the state of California has spent more than $1.4 million on her medical care and guards since March. However, the families of the victims noted that no dollar amount can be placed on the value of their loved ones.

The parole board unanimously voted against compassionate release for Atkins, effectively ending her bid for medical parole. She will, in all likelihood, die while incarcerated.

Many states have laws regarding medical paroles or compassionate release, but these laws are very narrow and seldom used. The Capital Times recently reported a rare case in which a Madison man who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2004 for a drunken driving homicide has been granted compassionate release because he has terminal cancer.

The same judge who sentenced Michael Yurowski to 10 years behind bars and 25 years of extended supervision ruled that Yurowski could be released from prison so that he may spend the time he has left to live in a hospice facility. The judge, Daniel Moeser, said that he could not remember another case in which he invoked the provisions of the Wisconsin law that allows for the compassionate release of inmates who are suffering from a terminal illness.

On July 8, 2003, Yurowski was intoxicated while driving a van. The van slammed into the back of a GMC Jimmy that was stopped at a traffic light and Yurowski and his passenger, Cherene Miles, suffered head injuries when they hit the windshield. Miles later died from her injuries and Yurowski was convicted of homicide by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle.

At the time of his arrest, Yurowski had a blood alcohol content of .30 percent and had been previously convicted of DUI three times. Miles had a blood alcohol content of .40 percent. Both were reportedly homeless alcoholics and were only casual acquaintances. Yurowski has expressed great remorse for the accident and guilt for Miles’ death.

Earlier this year, Yurowski began to experience numbness in his legs and hands. He was taken from jail to the hospital where it was discovered that he had a cancerous brain tumor. Only part of the malignant tumor could be removed and Yurowski’s lawyers say that he suffers from Glioblastoma Multiforme. In June, doctors said that he had only six months to live. Secondary medical problems have led to Yurowski requiring constant care as he has lost the use of his arms and legs.

Under a seldom used state law, Yurowski’s family petitioned the court for his release. The law says that if two doctors state that a prisoner is terminally ill and that the Program Review Committee in the prison and the sentencing judge agree, than a prisoner may receive a compassionate release. The Program Review Committee unanimously agreed with the doctors that Yurowski should receive medical parole. Moeser also agreed and Yurowski will soon be released so that he may live out his remaining days in hospice care.