Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=139193
Story Retrieval Date: 5/25/2013 5:00:21 PM CST
Date: December 21, 1988
Flight: Pan Am 103
Passengers and crew killed: 259
Killed on ground: 11
Pan Am Flight 103, scheduled to fly from Heathrow Airport in London to New York, exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and 11 people who were on the ground in Lockerbie.
The FBI said:Evidence no bigger than a thumbnail helped investigators link the bomb to a cassette tape recorder and to identify the type of timer used.
Investigators identified two suspects, but only one, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, was found guilty.
Pressure on LibyaThe country was forced to turn over al-Megrahi and the other suspect and trade sanctions were lifted in 2003 after Libya took responsibility for the bombing and offered to pay the victims’ families.
Al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the bombing served a total of eight years of a 27-year sentence. News sources vary on the exact math, hedging with vague numbers, with the general consensus being al-Megrahi served “less than 14 days” in jail for each of the victims. Based on a 365-day calendar year, divided by eight, it comes out to 10.81 days per victim.
WASHINGTON--The release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 has triggered a variety of reactions: jubilation in Libya, anger from families of the victims and a sense of “at last” among those who feel al-Megrahi should never have been convicted in the first place.
However, beyond the political discussions and allegations of a tainted court process that began in 2000, is the mechanism of al-Megrahi’s freedom – compassionate release. It is not a new idea, nor is it unique to the Scottish courts which used compassionate release as one of the reasons for letting al-Megrahi go.
At its most superficial, compassionate release means freeing a prisoner who is terminally ill. In reality, the criteria for compassionate release are far more extensive and typically include input from the victims or their survivors. This is in addition to layer upon layer of judicial review. And even then, after all the hurdles have been cleared, Robert Weisberg, director of Stanford Criminal Justice Center, pointed out, compassionate release is seldom granted. And, Weisberg noted, it is rarely granted for murderers.
For this reason alone, al-Megrahi’s freedom is an extraordinary occurrence.
Taking into consideration what Weisberg called the “political toxicity of the situation,” the already complex notion of compassionate release becomes further nuanced and layered when the scope of ancillary issues are tacked on to the deliberation process: a Scottish court is using Scottish law to decide a case in which most of the victims’ survivors come not from Scotland, but from a variety of countries. These citizens, and their respective homes have their own notions of fairness and judicial convention.
Trying to build a framework around the al-Megrahi decision within the context of the American judicial experience, to make the principle easier to grasp, has proven a challenge.
“The Lockerbie matter is so bizarre, so anomalous, that it really has nothing to do with what goes on in the U.S.” Weisberg said.
For Allen S. Weiner, who served as legal counsel for the State Department and helped shape the court that heard the Lockerbie bombing case said early release should never have been considered. “There’s no role for compassion when someone has engaged in conduct that is shocking to the conscience of humanity” he said.
And yet, the principle of compassionate release is part of the canon of the American criminal justice system. Like the rationale behind incarceration– detainment, deterrence and retribution—the acknowlegement of the humanity of those detained is part of our judicial system and speaks as much to the ideas of right and wrong as it does to the values of our court system.
For Geoffrey Corn of Houston’s South Texas College of Law, compassionate release is a hallmark of a mature judicial system and signifies an ideal that should be embraced. “[al-Megrahi’s release was] not the ideal case for people to be first learning about the notion of compassionate release because it’s wrapped up in the horror of terrorism,” Corn said. The concept, he said, “reflects the highest values of a liberal democracy . . .it’s something we should be proud of.”
Criminal Defense Attorney Matthew Maddox of Stamford, Conn., agreed that compassionate release works within the framework of Western democracies and highlights a self-correcting, individualized approach to law. “It is consistent with our system of government. . .and with the general good of sending a message that law enforcement can be compassionate and should always be subject to examination, re-examination and discretion” he said.
Even with the idea of examination, re-examination and discretion, when it comes to the American application of compassionate release, al-Megrahi remains an anomaly based strictly on math. According to Stanford’s Weisberg, compassionate release, when invoked, is often for individuals who have spent decades in prison, crossing over from youth to old age within the confines of a jail. Al-Megrahi, in contrast, served only eight years.
The closest correlation between al-Megrahi and the U.S. courts that surfaced in these interviews was that of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Unlike Timothy McVeigh who was executed, his co-conspirator, Terry Nichols has been jailed for his part in the 1995 bombing. Convicted on 161 counts of state murder, Nichols was imprisoned without hope of parole.
In this context, confined to American courts, Weisberg was decisive when it came to the idea of compassionate release. “[It is inconceivable] that this could be done under American law for Terry Nichols.” Compassionate release would not be an option for Nichols, he said. “It’s not because they would . . .face toxic political resistance but it’s because the criteria under the jurisdiction would deny it” said Weisberg.
Returning to the larger scope of international context, South Texas’ Corn suggested that the compassionate release of al-Megrahi could have an additional purpose beyond the realm of crime and punishment.
Corn saw al-Megrahi’s release as perhaps having a corrective purpose in that it could serve to alter misperceptions about Western criminal justice. However, Corn, like Maddox, conceded that with terrorism, such ideas may be lofty ones.
“[You’re] dealing with people who make rational decisions,” Corn said, adding, “deterrence has never been a particularly effective mechanism when dealing with terrorists.”
Weisberg finds little currency in the idea of using compassionate release to change hearts and minds. “I don’t think compassionate release should ever been seen as making a larger statement,” rather, it should remain an act driven by morality.
“Compassionate release is a modest component of the American criminal justice system, which usually works pretty well,” Weisberg said. It’s “sad it’s tarnished by this.”