August 27, 2009
Last week a Scottish judge released Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only man ever convicted of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Because al-Megrahi is dying of cancer, the judge, on grounds of compassion, sent him back to Libya so he could spend the remainder of his life with family.
Naturally, news of al-Megrahi's release—and his triumphant return to Libya—stunned and angered many here in America and across the world. Kathleen Flynn, whose son was killed in the 1988 bombing, asked, "Did Megrahi, as he planted a bomb on a US airliner, reflect on compassion for the people he was about to blow up? I think not."
Although I am an advocate of compassionate early release for prisoners under the right conditions, I was horrified at the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber. First, there's the heinous nature of his crime—and the fact that al-Megrahi served a mere 11 days in prison for each of the 270 people killed. Then there's his lack of remorse, or even admission of guilt. And finally, there's the pain that this decision is causing the victims' families.
But I'm also concerned that this notorious case will make it more difficult for compassionate release to be used in situations which truly merit it.
In 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Commission issued guidelines for compassionate release. Among the "extraordinary and compelling reasons" were if the prisoner were suffering from a terminal illness, if deteriorating health made self-care impossible, or if death of a family member left the defendant's minor children without care.
Ideally, this kind of compassionate release would involve the input of victims, and would be coupled with the remorse of the offender. The release of the prisoner should also not injure justice or cause a threat to the community. This kind of compassionate release is desperately needed in this country, where the population of geriatric prisoners is growing rapidly, and where the costs of caring for aging and terminally ill prisoners are passed on to taxpayers. Sadly, very few federal prisoners are released early—each year only about a dozen of the 200,000 federal prisoners have their sentences commuted for health reasons.
These are prisoners like Michael Paul Mahoney, who in the last stages of terminal lymphoma, lay in prison bedridden and incoherent. He was first convicted in 1980 for selling methamphetamines, and after his release, went clean. He bought a pool hall in Jackson, Tennessee. Every night he would deposit the day's earnings at a bank, carrying a small gun for protection. But when he reported his gun stolen, he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and received a mandatory 15 years.
Although his family and the judge who sentenced him petitioned for the dying man's release, he died in prison—needlessly, and at great public expense.
So there are indeed cases where compassion, justice, and public welfare are best served by releasing dying prisoners early. The al-Megrahi case was not one of those. And we should all hope that the early release of an unrepentant mass murderer won't make impossible the compassionate release of the Michael Paul Mahoneys of this world.
Note: This commentary delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.