Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'Compassionate' Release For Lockerbie Bomber


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're going to focus most of this hour on Lockerbie, the bomb explosion there in 1988 that killed 270 people, 189 of them American. Last week, the only man ever convicted for that terrorist act was released by Scotland on grounds of compassion. He has prostate cancer and was allowed to go home. There are lot of complications to this story. But, one of the things we want to discuss is the limit of compassionate release. When is it appropriate to release prisoners who are terminally ill?

But, in the meantime, an update on a story that we've been reporting all day here at NPR News. This a statement released tonight, this afternoon, just moments ago by Attorney General Eric Holder. The office of professional responsibility has now submitted to me its report regarding the office of legal counsel memoranda related to so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. I hope to be able to make as much of that report available as possible after it goes, undergoes a de-classification review and other steps. Among other findings the report recommends that the department re-examine previous decisions to decline prosecution in several cases related to the interrogation of certain detainees. I have reviewed the OPR report in depth. Moreover, I've closely examined the full, still classified version of the 2004 CIA inspector general's report, as well as other relevant information available to the department. As a result of my analysis of all of this material, I have concluded the information known to me, warrants opening a preliminary review into whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogation of specific detainees at overseas location.

And just an update on that, we have learned since that the Justice Department has decided to name a prosecutor by the name of John Durham, again, to look into allegations of abuse of detainees, terrorist suspects during the Bush administration - some cases that went beyond the enhanced interrogation guidelines issued by Bush administration officials.

Let's get back to Lockerbie. Stay tuned, by the way, to NPR for more details on that story as they become available. Last week, as we mentioned authorities in Scotland released Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the only man convicted for the bomb that destroyed a 747 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. The explosion killed everyone aboard and then more, when the airliner crashed into the town. The decision to release al-Megrahi after he'd served just eight years was based on compassion. He suffers from terminal prostate cancer.

He returned to a hero's welcome. Libyan leader colonel Muammar Gaddafi was among hundreds at the airport in Tripoli. Many of his victims' families, though, are furious. President Obama expressed his outrage and today, Britain canceled a visit to Libya by Prince Andrew. Meanwhile, the Scottish parliament was called to an emergency session in Edinburgh to debate the decision by Justice Minister Kenny Macaskill. He told them today that Libya broke a promise for a low key homecoming and he defended his ruling.

Justice KENNY MACASKILL (Justice Minister, Scotland): Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. But, as I said, Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one no court in any jurisdiction, in any land, can revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.

CONAN: The leader of the Scottish conservatives Annabel Goldie asked whether release to return home was the only compassionate alternative?

Ms. ANNABEL GOLDIE (Scottish Conservative, Scottish Parliament): Why could he not have been released to a secured house or a hospice or a hospital in Scotland? Even Mr. al-Megrahi's own lawyer, Dr. Ibrahim Legwell, considers Mr. al-Megrahi would receive better treatment in Scotland than in Libya. Presiding officer, compassion and justice would have been better served by that approach than by a convicted terrorist being feted as a hero in Libya to a backdrop of waving (unintelligible).

CONAN: If you work at the U.S. prison system, if you've been the victim of a crime, what are the limits of compassion? What should we do with convicted criminals with terminal diseases? 800-989-8255. Email us: You can join the conversation on our Web site, that's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program on the Opinion Page, Dave Zirin calls for an end to our sex tests for female athletes.

But first, Katty Kay joins us from the BBC's Washington Bureau. She is Washington correspondent for BBC World News America and her piece, "The Lockerbie Outrage Gap" appeared last Thursday on The Daily Beast. And thanks very much for joining us today.

Ms. KATTY KAY (Washington Correspondent, BBC World News America): You're very welcome.

CONAN: And that gap was the remarkable difference in response to al-Megrahi's release in the U.S. and the U.K.?

Ms. KAY: Yeah, it struck me, you know, while I was watching the coverage as this unfolded on Thursday, that the voices that we were hearing, both from British relatives of the British victims of the Lockerbie bombing and voices from Lockerbie itself, which of course, you know, has been synonymous with this bombing ever since it happened, and the voices we're hearing here in America, were very different in tone. That there was - you had parents of people who had died in the Lockerbie bombings in Britain saying, that they felt that al-Megrahi should be released, that it was the right decision and that he should get out on compassionate grounds.

You had people in Lockerbie telling our BBC correspondents there during the course of the day that they felt that this was the right decision as well. And that they sided with Kenny MacAskill in his definition of there should be justice tempered by compassion. And then, you had a very different reception from here in the United States, from the families of course, but also from the administration, who were, you know, quite simply furious with this decision. So, you know, you had these - very different voices and it struck me that it was interesting.

CONAN: Is compassionate release routine in Scotland?

Ms. KAY: Well in the last 10 years since the Scottish parliament has being devolved there have been 31 applications for release on compassionate grounds, 24 of them have been freed and the seven that weren't freed, it was because the Scottish prison system didn't think that there was medical evidence that they had terminal illnesses. So it is, yeah, clearly of those you have applied for it on medical grounds with terminal illnesses and the terminal illnesses have been proved, then they've got out.

CONAN: And we will talking later about the system here in the United States, which is considerably less forgiving particularly for men and women convicted of violent acts. And that's one of the things you keep hearing from the parents of the Americans who were killed, at least many of them, in the Lockerbie bombing. And that - well, they draw the analogy, would we release Osama Bin Laden?

Ms. KAY: Right and I think, you know, I can quite understand the outrage here. And I was wondering, I mean, in a sense what surprised me most was the lack of outrage in some respects, from the British relatives. And particularly the most outspoken relatives, who were interviewed by the BBC, this father, as I said who was saying that they felt that al-Megrahi should be released. That they felt that, you know, we were losing our moral standing, as one of them had put it. You know, if we didn't show compassion, that this was, as some of the people in Lockerbie were saying, that they didn't feel that this was such a black and white issue. That they were shades of grey and that they did feel that if the West was to hold itself up as a moral example to the rest of the world, then we ought to be able to show compassion even to those who had not shown compassion to us.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KAY: And you, I mean - you would have thought that these were people who might have similar reactions to their American counterparts. And yet the reaction was very different. And I wondered, you know, if it was not partly that Europeans have a slightly different attitude to terrorism in general. We've lived with it for longer. Obviously in Britain, you know, we've had the Northern Ireland issue for decades, the Spanish have (unintelligible), there have been the Red Brigades, that we have had terrorism in our soil, in our countries, with us for much longer. And I wonder if there is not some of that they played out as well, whereas the Lockerbie was such a defining, changing event for the United States.

CONAN: Katty Kay is Washington correspondent on BBC World News America, and we're talking today about the limits of compassion. 800-989-8255 Email: And George(ph) joins us on the line from Milwaukee. George, are you there? George, can you hear me? Evidently, George is not listening. And let me ask you, Katty Kay, a point that we'd actually hoped that George would make, and that was, in fact, there is more to this than simply, at least some people argue, the release on grounds of compassion.

There was the celebrations in Tripoli, which were an embarrassment to the British government, which thought this would be a low-key matter. And the revelation that, in fact, at least the Libyans said, this came up every time they were negotiating trade relations with Britain, including oil leases of substantial amounts.

Ms. KAY: I think there is an awful lot more going on here. I mean, first as you mentioned, there's the release. And the Scottish government said that it was reassured that there would be no hero's welcome, that that was part of the deal and that - when they were negotiating over al-Megrahi's release, they were told that he wouldn't be welcomed back as a hero. Obviously, he was.

It's caused a huge amount of embarrassment, I think, for Scotland, this. I mean, those pictures of Megrahi coming down the steps and the Scottish flag waving alongside the Libyan flag has been something that the Scots have found very embarrassing and the British government, too, in London has found embarrassing, has not been happy with.

And I think that, you know, you always have to think in these deliberations that there is also a lot going on, I think, in terms of - I mean, trade you mentioned but also the domestic politics between London and Scotland, that Scotland does not a foreign policy and yet was landed with this decision, which was an incredibly sensitive one in terms of foreign policy implications. And so you had this, the parliament in Scotland, the justice secretary in Scotland, making a decision with huge ramifications around the world for a government that doesn't have its own foreign policy decisions.

You know, we've got - this has become embroiled in domestic British politics, as well. And I think on the trade issue, the fact that Prince Andrew has canceled the visit to Libya now shows how sensitive the British government, and not just the Scottish government but the British government, is about the implications of this release.

CONAN: In the '80s, before Lockerbie, there was also an example of a British constable, a young woman was shot and killed outside of the People's Bureau, as it was styled, of the Libyan government in London, a case where those - the men alleged to have fired those shots were also allowed release, that on diplomatic grounds.

Ms. KAY: Yes, I mean, you know, I think that - isn't that another example of what the people of Lockerbie, I guess, were saying to us on Thursday, that these issues are grayer, perhaps, in Europe. And I don't know whether it's a cultural difference, a legal difference. You mentioned an economic difference, a political difference, or all of those factors together where the fact that we have a history in Europe of different countries in different ways of negotiating with terrorist organizations. The Spanish government has talked to ETA. The British government talked to the IRA and to Sinn Fein. And maybe we have a higher tolerance threshold. I'm not sure if that's the case, but I felt some of that on Thursday, that there was this different cultural attitude towards terrorism.

CONAN: Stay with us, if you would, Katty Kay, of the BBC World News America. We hear this issue sometimes presented as very cut and dry, that compassionate release is relatively routine in places like Scotland, virtually unknown here in the U.S. It turns out, it's not that simple.

In a few minutes, we'll talk with a doctor who works with terminally ill inmates. You - so what should be the limits of compassion? 800-989-8255. Send us email, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Scotland, not the only country to release terminally ill inmates based on compassion. Last week in California, a woman named Deborah Peagler was released. She suffers from terminal lung cancer. Others with terminal diseases fight for release and are not so fortunate.

So what should be the limits of compassion? If you work in the prison system, if you've been the victim of a crime, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Katty Kay is with us, the Washington correspondent for BBC World News America. She wrote a piece called "The Lockerbie Outrage Gap" on the Daily Beast last Thursday. Let's get a caller on the line. And this is Maura(ph), Maura with us from Little Rock in Arkansas.

MAURA (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, Maura.

MAURA: I wanted to say that not all Americans were opposed to it. I was very interested and heartened to see that when I read our state-wide daily paper, they interviewed the families of two people who had died in the Lockerbie bombing. There were three altogether from Arkansas killed.

These two who were quoted both supported the compassionate release and said that they felt that it was good for America to walk down the path of more compassion and that we can afford to. We're a great nation and we can afford to be magnanimous. We have nothing to fear from a dying man.

CONAN: And that indeed, this is something that contrasts with the lack of compassion the bombing showed to his victims.

MAURA: Well, yes, as I believe the prime minister of Scotland said. He showed a lack of compassion, but we can do better than that. And I think that often we tend to be hard in our attitudes, and that hardness fosters more harshness sometimes among ourselves and also in the world at large. And if we want to change that global dynamic, we have to set an example.

CONAN: Maura, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

MAURA: Thank you.

CONAN: So Katty Kay, opinion at least mixed to some degree on this side of the Atlantic, and apparently as we listened to the debate today in Edinburgh, at least after reflection, mixed there, too.

Ms. KAY: Well, I think the debate that you're hearing in Edinburgh, I would put, you know, some of that as down to politics, that obviously you've got the Scottish National Party, which Kenny MacAskill belongs to, which was being attacked by both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. And this again gets caught up in Scottish domestic politics, which where there is a push for a referendum on more independence. There are concerns that this kind of incident might alienate Scotland from the international community and that if Scotland is going to be an independent nation, it's going to need international and especially U.S. support.

So I wouldn't read too much into what happened in Edinburgh today just because I think you - it would happen here, too. If you had a politician who was being attacked as having done something wrong internationally, you'd probably get people from the other parties piling in on them at the same time, but I do think it's very interesting what Maura said about how you are getting different voices here as well. And I'm, you know, interested to hear what some of the families were saying from Arkansas. It does chime with what some of the British families were saying and from what we were hearing from people in Lockerbie and Scotland as well on Thursday.

I suppose that what's happened here has been almost as much as some of the more vocal family members speaking out very angrily against this. And you did have a lot of them, and they were the people that were being interviewed on television. I didn't see on television - and I was watching nearly all of the cable news coverage on Thursday, I didn't see American family members who were being interviewed. And perhaps that's because the cable channels didn't choose to interview them particularly who were saying actually we support this.

CONAN: One of the victims named was Little Rock native Sandy Phillips(ph). Phillips' mother reacted to the news of al-Megrahi's release, Caroline Stevenson(ph) is her name, says you can never get over a tragedy like this, but she's done something many people could not do. She's forgiven. So…

Ms. KAY: That's very interesting, and it is not the tone, is it, Neal, that we were hearing from the American government, where you know, from Obama down from Robert Mueller, obviously the FBI director, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, you were hearing a much tougher, united and sort of uncharacteristically outspoken criticism of an allied government's decision.

CONAN: Katty Kay, thank you very much for your time today, appreciate it.

Ms. KAY: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Katty Kay, the Washington correspondent for BBC World News America and with us from their studios here in Washington, D.C.

Joining us now from the studios at Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson is Dr. Joseph Blackston, who has worked as a doctor for terminally ill inmates at Central Mississippi Correctional facility. And Dr. Blackston, nice to have you on the program today.

Dr. JOSEPH BLACKSTON (Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Mississippi Medical Center): Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And in the prison you worked at, what kind of medical care was available for somebody with a terminal condition?

Dr. BLACKSTON: Well, we had a fairly large prison. We had almost 2,400 inmates and we had actually both male and female inmates. We had - we did not have a hospital specifically on the grounds, but we did have a small what we call an infirmary. It was basically an area in the medical unit, the medical wing of the prison. And we had, you know, doctors and nurses there.

We could provide, you know, a fair bit of, you know, one-on-one care, but obviously it did not rise to the level of being, you know, in an acute, in-patient hospital setting.

CONAN: Or a hospice setting or something like that.

Dr. BLACKSTON: Well, we could do some sort of hospice-related care, but obviously, the purpose of hospice is to do a lot of comfort care. By necessity, a prison is not the most ideal place to, you know, to try to do that, although there have been some very successful, you know, hospice programs that have been instituted in prisons.

CONAN: Well, we'll get to that in a minute, but were prisoners ever released on grounds of compassion, people who had terminal diseases?

Dr. BLACKSTON: Yes, sir. We, actually during my stint as the medical director there, which was about two and a half years, we were able to release a small number. I would guess probably during the period of time, you know, maybe six or seven or maybe a few more inmates. Now, that probably represents, you know, a portion of a larger number who may have been otherwise eligible from a medical standpoint who may not have gotten released.

CONAN: And were there any qualifications? Was it the nature of the crime, how much time served, that sort of thing?

Dr. BLACKSTON: Yes sir, great question. Actually, in 2004, the Mississippi legislature actually amended its statute, its law that allows for what they term a conditional medical release. In other words, it's not a full pardon in a sense, but it understands that patients with pretty severe medical illnesses could be released essentially to what is sort of home custody.

So they're still under the auspices of the Department of Corrections, but because of their medical condition, they are, you know, released to home.

CONAN: And would this be qualified if they'd convicted of a violent crime, for example?

Dr. BLACKSTON: Well, actually, initially in 2004, the requirement did not - or the law did not exclude people who had committed violent crimes. It did, however, exclude patients or prison inmates who had been convicted of a sex crime. It also required that you have served at least one year of incarceration. Now subsequent to that, I believe maybe last year, they amended the law slightly and excluded anyone who had committed a violent crime.

CONAN: So if anything, these - ideas are being tightened, if anything.

Dr. BLACKSTON: Well, it would appear so.

CONAN: And the laws are different in every state. We're just talking about Mississippi.

Dr. BLACKSTON: Exactly, exactly.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email Chris(ph) is with us from St. Louis.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi there, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Chris, go ahead.

CHRIS: Just a couple points here. One of your previous callers said that al-Megrahi can no longer do any harm because he's old and sick now, released to Libya. Well, he wasn't on that plane that exploded over Lockerbie. He was a planner, and he can still plan. Second, I don't think victims get any compassionate release from what happened to their family members.

CONAN: And do you speak from personal experience?

CHRIS: I was the victim of a mugging about 15 years ago, and it was not prosecuted. All six of the people who beat me senseless and are responsible for the pins and wires holding the left side of my face together now went free.

So I think too often, those who commit crimes go free. Now, I'm not bitter about this. I've moved on with my life, but just out of a sense of justice, I don't think that compassionate release is a very good policy.

CONAN: And do you think you might feel differently, Chris, if those people had been caught and convicted, and this had come up later?

CHRIS: I don't think I would. In essence, I feel like if - you've got to serve your time regardless. It's kind of the luck of the draw who gets sick in this world, right?

CONAN: Well, eventually we all do.

CHRIS: Yeah, so what's important is that justice is served here.

CONAN: All right, Chris, thank you very much for the call, appreciate it.

CHRIS: You're welcome.

CONAN: And Dr. Blackston, let me ask you. There's a procedure in many states across the country now, when a prisoner is up for parole, victims or spokespersons for victims are allowed to testify against or on their behalf. And I wonder, on the compassionate release grounds, do you know if victims were allowed to weigh in on the case?

Dr. BLACKSTON: It's my experience, Neal, that they did receive - the Department of the Corrections, when we had an inmate who medically - and I want to point out - the caller raised a good point - that our job as the physician or the caregivers of the medical staff there in prison, it was our job there to make a medical diagnosis and to provide the medical care. We weren't really there to either lobby for or against a particular inmate or, you know, we often - we don't know what crime they may or may not have committed. So…

CONAN: You're just talking about that diagnosis, yeah.

Dr. BLACKSTON: Right. We're there to advise the commissioner of Department of Corrections, or the governor in some instances, of the patient's actual medical condition. And we have to certify that, you know, we feel that the patient either has a terminal illness or that they are severely incapacitated. There are some people who have obviously a terminal condition or don't have a terminal condition but they may, in fact, be incapacitated. They could be in a coma, for example, or they could be completely paralyzed, so that technically wouldn't be a, quote, "terminal condition."

So we certify that information to the Department of Corrections. And it's my understanding that the staff there actually would have communications sometimes with the local prosecutors, sometimes of victims of the crime in a case where they may have been a victim. We have people obviously who, you know, did different things like - were convicted of, you know, felony DUI, so there technically may not have been a victim there. But they did get feedback from those individuals. And there are some individuals, I think, that were not released because of some objections.

Now, as a physician, I think, maybe I was fortunate that that decision wasn't up to me. I didn't have to make that hard call.

CONAN: You also mentioned briefly that there are states or prisons where there are hospice care allowed - Angola in Louisiana, as I understand it, is one of them. And that would not be the first place to leap to mind.

Dr. BLACKSTON: Yes, sir. In fact, at one point, I think, Angola was considered one of the most violent prisons in the United States. They have over 5,000 inmates. And about the same time that I began working with the Department of Corrections in Mississippi, we were able to go down and visit their hospice program. They were kind enough to invite us. And they really do have a model program. It's been acknowledged in both the medical literature and in some of the hospice literature. They actually have inmates that participate directly in the hospice care of their fellow inmates in many circumstances. And interestingly enough, many of those inmates are viewed great status. In fact, if you are accepted as an inmate hospice worker, you really - you hold your head high in the prison and you are among the, you know, the inmate hierarchy -really among the most respected people in the institution.

CONAN: Dr. Blackston, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Dr. BLACKSTON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Joseph Blackston worked as a doctor for terminally-ill inmates at Central Mississippi's correctional facility outside of Jackson - joins us today from the studios of Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson, Mississippi.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Martin(ph) on the line. Martin, calling us from Columbus.

MARTIN (Caller): Hi, yeah. I'd sort of like to speak to the whole idea of forgiveness. It's a core Christian value. We claim to be the most Christian nation, but we really don't practice a lot of forgiveness. And this isn't just an academic thing with me, 30…

CONAN: Yes, Martin?


CONAN: Go ahead. Thirty is…?

MARTIN: Thirty-eight years ago, I was shot in the throat which is why my voice is so weird - shot by a couple 15-year-old kids. And I've spent the last 38 years in a wheelchair.

Forgiveness is good for the people who do it, and not just the people who receive the forgiveness. And certainly compassion isn't even quite forgiveness. You don't have to even quite forgive a person - my understanding is there's some question as to whether this man's guilty. But to have compassion for somebody to spend the last days of their life, regardless of what kind of political edge somebody makes, seems like a pretty small leap to me.

CONAN: And do you know what happened to the people who shot you?

MARTIN: I don't specifically know what happened. I didn't - it probably would have been difficult to prosecute them, but I didn't try. It didn't seem like it would help anybody. They were poor and uneducated, and I can send them to the jail for a few years, but then they'll be poor and uneducated and have a criminal record, and who benefits? I don't.

CONAN: Well, that's…

MARTIN: I didn't try, honestly.

CONAN: Interesting. Martin, thank you very much for the call. And we wish you good luck.


CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get Sarah(ph) on the line. Sarah with us from Dubuque.

SARAH (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to point out that compassionate release is basically showing the world that we are human, we haven't lost our humanity, even though the person who committed the crime has. And there is a cultural difference. You have America and the prison system is very, you know, a lot of emphasis on punitive conditions and no, you know, humanity is expressed toward them, this sort of eye for an eye. And it's very different here.

However, that being said, the hero's welcome really does make sick. I think that is going too far in the other direction from punitive, no humanity, to let's celebrate this person who's been convicted of killing. That makes the country look bad, that makes the one who's receiving them even. So…

CONAN: Al-Megrahi, until he dropped his appeal as part of the grounds for his release, but had always insisted on his innocence - he was a Libyan intelligence official. Then Libya, as part of a later agreement, agreed to pay restitution to the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. And there are those who will dispute his innocence to this day. Nevertheless, he was convicted. You can only regard that, in a very carefully monitored trial in Scotland, as evidence of guilt.

SARAH: Exactly. I mean, you know, convicted is one of those terms where, you know, did it really prove the actual guilt. You know, someone maintains they're innocent. There're so many prisoners maintaining their innocence. There's so many prisoners who are innocent. And that's when the compassion comes in. The hero's welcome - I have a little bit of difficulty with - a hero? I mean, well, let's say - I mean, I guess if this person's innocent and he's being released and he was proved innocent, then, okay, he was a martyr, a hero, something like that. But I don't know. I just have - I think it's just - such a - it just makes people angry and it just shows a lot of…

CONAN: It certainly made people angry, Sarah. Thank…


(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

SARAH: Thank you.

CONAN: Up next, the opinion page and an argument that it's time to stop sex tests for female athletes. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.