Sunday, September 06, 2009


Three widely disparate persons in time and place, all accused and indicted for mass murder, have a lot to teach us about our criminal justice system.

Northern Californian Susan Atkins is the 61 year old Manson family member who was convicted in the nine person murder spree masterminded by the Charlie Manson in 1969. As an extremely troubled and vulnerable 18 year old when she succumbed to Manson's grotesque charisma in 1967, Atkins would most likely have been incapable of violent criminal activity on her own accord. She has been on death's doorstep for the past year from brain cancer, yet the California penal system cannot find the mercy or good sense to set her free to die with some measure of dignity after completing her 40th year of incarceration in a state spiraling into bankruptcy, due in part to a staggeringly large prison population from decades of sentencing excess.

Native Oklahoman Cameron Todd Willingham was born twenty years after Adkins but has been dead five years already, not by natural causes but by the twisted scales of justice in Texas, the poster state for killing undesirable citizens, whether guilty or not for a real or imagined crimes. In Willingham's case, he was not only innocent, he was executed in 2004 for an event, the fire deaths of his three children asleep with him one 1991 Corsicana, Texas night, that almost certainly wasn't even a crime scene. The Texas legal system can't call a "mulligan" on Willingham's lethal injection, and by all accounts couldn't care less.

Chicago area native James Degorski, five years younger than Willingham, has spent the last seven years in jail since his 2002 arrest for the seven Brown's Chicken murders in Palatine, IL, and now faces a possible death sentence if convicted. Unlike his co-defendant Juan Luna, who is serving a life sentence for his role in the killings, the case against Degorski is largely circumstantial, based on the account of an ex-girlfriend and his close ties as Luna's sidekick. Sadly, that fact has not deterred Illinois prosecutors from seeking to execute Degorski.

The Atkins, Willingham and Degorski cases should spur prosecutors and the public to take a hard look at a judicial system that honors vengeance, blood lust or endless incarceration of feeble and dying souls, above truth, common sense and the sanctity of life.

Also published in Glen Ellyn Sun, September 11, 2009
and the Weaton Sun, September 11, 2009