The Death of Susan Atkins

“I Have No Mercy On You”

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Susan Atkins, convicted killer

Susan Atkins was convicted of first degree murder for the deaths of six people: Gary Hinman, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski and Sharon Tate. Susan was sentenced to death in the gas chamber in 1971, but that sentence was overturned a year later when the California Supreme Court (temporarily) abolished the death penalty. Atkins, along with her codefendants, then had her sentence changed to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Susan Denise Atkins was born May 7, 1948 in San Gabriel, California. Her parents, Edward John Atkins (born 1920 in South Dakota) and Jeanne Francis Jett (born 1923 in Missouri) were drunks and their home was filled with volatility. Susan had one older brother (Jon Michael Atkins) and one younger brother, Steven. During her childhood, she was molested by her older brother. Susan’s life was further turned up-end at 14 when her mother died of cancer. Jon was in the Navy when her mom died, and Susan was expected to act as the ‘mother’ within the family.

Later, she began to dabble in recreational drugs. A frightening LSD trip in her teens did not deter her from continuing to numb herself with pharmaceuticals. When her father moved out of town, Susan was shuttled between relatives. She relocated to San Francisco and got involved with petty criminals, drug dealers, Satanists, all while putting herself in difficult personal situations. She hopped from man to man, always seeking someone who would take care of her.

In the autumn of 1967, she and her friend Ella Jo Bailey were living with two men in an apartment at the intersection of Oak and Lyon. Janis Joplin lived just a few doors away and sometimes they heard her sing the blues from their kitchen. That season, Susan attended a party where she saw a short man with prison tattoos on both his forearms playing guitar. She drifted to him like a moth to a flame.

Two days later, she again encountered the man, 32-year old Charles Manson and followed him home where he took off her clothes, placed her in front of a full-length mirror, told her she was beautiful and made love to her.

After sex, Charlie told Susan that he and the three women he was currently living with (Mary Brunner, Lynette Fromme and Patricia Krenwinkel) were leaving San Francisco to travel in an old school bus. He invited her to join them.

Over the next two years, Susan was a member of the so-called Manson Family, a communal anti-establishment collective that fell under Manson’s persuasive manipulations. She had a son, born in October 1968 and then just nine months later, she committed the first crime that led to her life sentence: the murder of Gary Hinman.

Ten days later, she was part of the foursome that entered the property at 10050 Cielo Drive and killed the occupants there, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate.

Three months later, she blabbed about her exploits to inmates at Sybil Brand, the main women’s jail in Los Angeles which led to law enforcement finally solving the Tate/LaBianca murders that had eluded them for months.

In December 1969, Susan was the star witness at the grand jury for the Manson Family and again bragged about her homicidal exploits.

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Susan in December 1969 during her grand jury testimony

We now have reason to believe that much of what she told the grand jury was false.

Susan likely did not make the final action that killed of any of the Manson Family victims — that is, however, not to say she wasn’t directly involved in their deaths.

She (along with another member of the Family) took turns holding a pillow over Gary Hinman’s face after he was stabbed by a third member of the Family.

She ordered Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring and Abigail Folger to enter the living room at Cielo Drive, with a knife in her hand, where she assisted in tying them up along with chief Manson assassin Charles ‘Tex’ Watson.

Susan stabbed Wojciech Frykowski several times in the legs, and wrestled with him when he fought her.

She held Sharon Tate by knife, while Frykowski and Folger were chased outside the home and stabbed to death on the lawn.

But despite her later claims, Susan Atkins did not in fact stab Sharon Tate. Charles Watson has claimed sole responsibility, writing that Susan froze when he first ordered her to kill Sharon and so he pushed her aside and did the deed himself.

Susan was guilty of many crimes during the events at Hinman’s and Tate’s homes. She was guilty of entrapment, kidnapping, theft, assault and ultimately, of murder.

It didn’t really matter that she didn’t stab Sharon, although after a few years in prison, she tried to tell everyone that she didn’t kill anyone.

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Footage of one of Susan’s parole hearings

Did she kill anyone? I mean, read through the above. Can you be guilty of murder without actually taking a life? Yes, if you contributed to their deaths and Susan Atkins most definitely did. She deserved to serve time in prison for her crimes, although if she had told the truth initially (and then not switched her loyalty back to Manson after being pressured by the Family following her grand jury testimony) she might have gotten less time, ultimately.

Susan seemed truly contrite during the 80s, 90s and 2000s in interviews, in part because she had become a Christian and said that she felt redeemed, despite her crimes. She also married a young law student, James Whitehouse. But her contrition paled in comparison with her previous claims (perhaps false) that she told Sharon Tate she “didn’t care about her” and “had no mercy on her” and called her a bitch, and licked Sharon’s blood off her hand. It’s no wonder that parole boards never knew what was the truth. They also didn’t appreciate her poor behavior when it came to psychiatric assessments. Susan was argumentative and defensive, and often refused to participate in these parole-mandated exams.

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James Whitehouse poses with a photograph of his wife, Susan Atkins

One psychiatrist told the parole board in 2000, “I can only conclude, based upon the inmate’s behavior, that she still has a serious problem with authority and has assumed an extremely adversarial approach to this psychiatric evaluation.”

During her June, 2005 parole hearing, Susan faced the families of her victims but she refused to speak about her crimes (at her attorney/husband’s advice). Had she spoken candidly about admitted what she was guilty of and apologized with real conviction, she may have won her release. Instead, she got a three year denial.

In 2008, while exercising at a Curves™ gym in prison, Susan had a seizure. She was rushed to the infirmary where they diagnosed her with brain cancer. She was moved to the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, north of Fresno. A leg amputation followed, and her health quickly declined.

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James Whitehouse speaks with his ailing wife during her special hearing in 2009

In 2009, her attorney-husband petitioned the court for a compassionate release. Arguing that her medical needs far outweighed the punitive sentence she received so many years before, and that she was bedridden and unable to harm anyone, James Whitehouse made his case. Surprisingly, he had one very high-profile supporter: former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. He wrote a letter to the board which read, in part, “just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her.”

Debra Tate (sister of Sharon) who opposed release, told broadcaster Larry King, “I have all the compassion in the world for her. I wish her very well and always have. In jail, I hope that they thrive and… provide a useful life to other inmates but… I can never trust that these people are rehabilitated. I’m not capable of hate. I feel bad that their lives have been wasted but that was a choice that they made.” — Debra Tate on “Larry King Live” ©2009 CNN (Cable News Network)

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A photograph of Susan in prison

Susan was denied her compassionate release. She died at the prison in Chowchilla, on September 24, 2009.

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Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series.

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