The Scots have caused what is starting to amount to an international storm by releasing Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. According to the initial BBC Web report:
The Lockerbie bomber has left Scotland on board a plane bound for Libya after being freed from prison on compassionate grounds.
Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, 57, was jailed in 2001 for the atrocity which claimed 270 lives in 1988.
The decision to release Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, was made by the Scottish Government.
There is more coverage, including a report that Megrahi still maintains his innocence, and another more recent BBC story raising questions about the release. Reactions have generally not been supportive (including those of the white house and the US Attorney General) of the Scottish Executive's decision. That said, the decision reflects a fundamental distinction between European and American attitudes on punishment and incarceration, including the death penalty. As a death penalty opponent, I often find myself more in line with European sentiment on criminal punishment.
That said, I don't personally support the decision to release Megrahi. While I can understand that questions of compassion might dictate the release of a killer or other criminal prior to a full term of incarceration being served, and I prefer the European approach to the U.S. "punish, punish, punish and punish some more" mentality, I don't think that dying of a natural disease (or old age) in prison is in and of itself an end that society needs to go to great lengths to avoid. I have not studied nor thought deeply of these issues before now, but on first reflection, I think the questions that need to be asked in such a situation are:
- whether there are reasonable arguments that compassion serves to mitigate against the convicted person serving the entirety of their sentence; if so, then
- whether the person convicted has served such an amount of time, considering the seriousness of their crime and its effects on victims and society (including the victim's families and others who knew them), and given the totality of the circumstances, that a reasonable argument can be made that the crime has been "paid for" in some sense; if so, then
- whether there is any reasonable possibility that the convicted person may engage in further crimes once released.
Here, I don't think that the case can come anywhere close to meeting the second part of the test. I cannot personally think of anyone I know who would think that an eight year sentence is sufficient to even begin paying for the damage caused by the 270 lives intentionally killed by Megrahi (and others). So, it would not satisfy step two, even if it satisfies step one. The facts aren't all out yet, but the extent to which the Scottish Executive considered the issues raised in number two isn't at all clear from what I have read.
I did have a friend, Lynne Hartunian, who died on Pan Am 103 (a classmate at the State University of New York College at Oswego), so perhaps I am not sufficiently object to make any kind of objective case here. But trying to look past my own emotions, and those of my friends, I'm still not sure I fully understand what the Scots were thinking.