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Lockerbie Bomber's Early Release Spurs Discussion: Was Compassion Misplaced?

Publication Date: 
August 27, 2009
Medill Reports
Deb Weinstein

Professor Robert Weisberg and senior lecturer Allen Weiner are quoted on the compassionate release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Weisberg finds little currency is the idea of using compassionate 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.”