Elderly Criminals: Lessons from the von Brunn Case

The terrible attack this week at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, was jolting for a number of reasons. But one of the most surprising things was the age of the accused gunman, James von Brunn, who is 88. According to the FBI, most hate-crime offenders are under the age of 18, and, well, not to be ageist or flip, but storming a well-guarded building minutes from the White House and killing a security officer in the process does seem to be a young man's game. Apparently hate is not always deterred by advancing years.

Might von Brunn, a longtime white supremacist, have been thinking he'd enact a violent plan late in life when the consequences might be mitigated by his age? More than a few of my friends and family say that when they're elderly they're going to stop pretending to be something they're not and just really let it all hang out. "Why not?" they usually say. "What are they going to do to me? I'm already old." It seems completely rational and entirely seductive that, at the end of our lives, we will express ourselves warts and all—without fear of the repercussions—whether it's finally going off a lifelong diet or telling that cousin what you really think of him. "When I am an old woman," poet Jenny Joseph writes, "I shall wear purple ... I shall go out in my slippers in the rain. And pick flowers in other people's gardens. And learn to spit."

What if the desires we've been bottling up are murderous and destructive, as von Brunn's seem to have been? Perhaps for some criminals, the rage of their early years returns to once again wreak havoc late in life. Von Brunn's unabashed racism and anti-Semitism did not mellow with age.

We tend to think of old age as that time in our lives when we are on the flip side of extreme emotion, as if frailty of the body renders our souls frail as well. In the criminal-justice system, the idea of the compassionate release of elderly criminals relies on that theory. The U.S. Sentencing Commission allows an early exit from prison for those felons "experiencing deteriorating physical or mental health because of the aging process that substantially diminishes the ability of the defendant to provide self-care within the environment of a correctional facility."

We'd do well to remember von Brunn this summer when we mark the 40th anniversary of the horrific spree murders committed by Charles Manson and his "family" members. Along with the wave of publicity, we'll receive status updates on Susan Atkins, Charles (Tex) Watson, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel, who will once again be up for parole. Originally sentenced to death in 1971 for seven murders, they had their prison terms commuted to life when the Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. (It was later reinstated in 1976.) One of the customary arguments for their release on parole will be their age (all of them cluster around 60) and their spotless prison records: Watson is a jailhouse preacher; Krenwinkel raises dogs for the disabled. Despite being terminally ill and almost completely paralyzed, Atkins was denied a compassionate-release appeal last year but will be up for parole for the 18th time this September. Statements in support of their release are usually along the lines of this comment by Gloria Goodwin-Killian, director of the Action Committee for Women in Prison, after the denial: "Susan has been punished all that she can be. Short of going out to the hospital and physically torturing her, there is nothing left anyone can do to her."

And yet, one cannot make that argument now without now thinking of von Brunn, who has reminded us that the aged can and will commit crime. And though it is very unlikely that Atkins will reoffend, why should age be a determining factor for the potential release of Watson, Von Houten and Krenwinkel?

The Manson-family members may have truly rehabilitated themselves over the years—unlike von Brunn, who seems to have become only more hateful. However, they could still serve as a malevolent influence on other less-enlightened souls. Atkins and the others declare themselves different people from the ones who committed those awful crimes four decades ago, but America is also a different country. In the 40 years since those murders shocked a nation not yet fascinated with serial killers, Manson admirers have exploded in number. There is a Charles Manson fan club (several, in fact), a thriving market in Manson-family memorabilia, and Manson himself receives tons of mail and visitation requests every year.

What kind of signal would it send, not only to the families of the victims, but also to those who consider the Manson family role models, if the government were to release them for the last 10 or 20 years of their lives simply because they were old? And who considers 60 old anymore? Indeed, the U.S. Parole Commission's guidelines say that early release of a prisoner should be denied if that release would "depreciate the seriousness of the crime or promote disrespect of the law." And in light of the bizarre hero-worship status that some famous murderers attain in the U.S., releasing them for any reason, including age, might promote the idea that there's a happy ending for these folks.

Should he be convicted, von Brunn will almost certainly die in prison. But if we have any chance of stopping these kinds of horrible acts in the future, we have to stop thinking of older people as incapable of serving their time. Yes, it seems harsh, but I hope that in the excited debate about elderly criminals in the wake of the heinous act that von Brunn is alleged to have committed, and later when the Manson family returns to the news, we can also remember that time does not depreciate these sorts of crimes. Indeed, in the eyes of some, it serves only to glamorize them.