Ten years ago, California’s parole board sparked a muted controversy when they denied parole to a killer who was dying of cancer and whose lawyer petitioned the Golden State for compassionate release.
Susan Atkins had been sentenced to death for a series of 1969 murders, but her capital sentence was later commuted to life in prison. By 2009 she was bed-ridden and no threat to life and limb by any reasonable measure; yet the parole board ruled a life sentence meant life and let Atkins die in custody.
Atkins may not be a household name, but most Americans well know the name of the ringleader who unleashed Atkins and others in a murderous spree: Charles Manson. The parole board recognized that some crimes are so heinous as to preclude clemency, even when the prisoner is penitent and at death’s doorstep. In such cases, life must mean life.
Illinois faces a similar dilemma this week when Chester O. Weger stands for parole and the people of Starved Rock Country watch anxiously to see which will prevail: Weger’s age (80) and physical decline or the obligation to adhere to the verdict and sentence imposed nearly 60 years ago.
For us, the choice is clear: Weger must remain behind bars.
As was the case with Atkins, there is no credible reason to believe an aged Weger poses a physical threat to society. As also with Atkins, however, the abhorrent nature of Weger’s crimes and the generational impact he had not only on Illinois but the nation as a whole demands that he serve every last day of his sentence.
Let us first dispense with the contemptible notion that Weger was framed or somehow is blameless in the triple murder. He provided a confession (later recanted) and the circumstantial evidence (forensic evidence was primitive then) corroborated Weger’s statements. He was guilty then and he is guilty now, even if he can never admit it.
For that reason, it was troubling when the Illinois Prisoner Review Board began to issue a series of eyebrow-raising votes signaling greater willingness to release Weger now that he has exceeded his life expectancy. We are equally troubled that double-murderer Henry Hillenbrand was abruptly cut loose earlier this year and hope the board does not abruptly foist Weger onto some unsuspecting community the way Hillenbrand washed ashore in Putnam County with hours’ notice to the authorities.
Weger is not penitent. He is not reformed. He persists in self-serving statements that he was a patsy. His steadfast lies have attracted an alarming number of adherents in defiance of the facts.
That alone makes Weger a poor candidate for release and we urge the board to return to the days when life still meant life. Richard Speck died in an Illinois prison. William Heirens, the so-called “Lipstick Killer,” died in an Illinois prison. It is worth noting Heirens died at 83 while still in custody; compassionate release was rightly rejected by the parole board.
Weger’s crimes thrust him into the same bottom-feeding bracket as Atkins and Manson, who eight years later followed Atkins to the grave and, like her, while in custody.
Weger should share their fate. Life should mean life.