Charles Manson Trial: 1970-71
Charles Manson Trial: 1970-71
Defendants: Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten
Crimes Charged: First-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Irving Kanarek (for Manson), Daye Shinn (for Atkins), Paul Fitzgerald (for Krenwinkel), Maxwell Keith, Ronald Hughes, and Ira Reiner (for Van Houten)
Chief Prosecutor: Vincent Bugliosi and Aaron Stovitz
Judge: Charles H. Older
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trial: June 15, 1970-March 29, 1971
Sentence: Death, later transmuted to life imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: The killings for which Charles Manson and his followers were convicted made him one of the century's most infamous murderers. The prosecution's case provided an example of how the U.S. Supreme Court's Aranda ruling is applied in cases involving multiple defendants. The trial was one of the longest and costliest in California history.
On August 9, 1969, police in Los Angeles, California, responded to a hysterical call from actress Sharon Tate's housekeeper. When officers arrived at the house rented by Tate and her husband, film director Roman Polanski, they found the corpses of the pregnant actress and three house guests: Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Voyteck Frykowski. All had been stabbed repeatedly. Steven Parent, a friend of the groundskeeper, was found shot to death outside in his car. A day later in another part of the city, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were found violently stabbed to death in their suburban home. All seven deaths were eventually linked to a scheme whose savagery was surpassed only by the peculiarity of its motive.
The first tips came from motorcycle gang members, who told police about a commune of young people called the "Family" living in the desolate California hills. The commune was led by an ex-convict named Charles Manson, who had bragged of committing murders that resembled the Tate killings. Two prison inmates similarly told authorities that their cellmate Susan Atkins had described to them in horrifying detail how she and fellow members of the "Family" had killed Tate and her guests, the LaBiancas, and others.
In return for a promise of immunity, Atkins repeated her story to a grand jury in December 1969, implicating Manson and others in the Tate-LaBianca killings. Ironically, Manson was already in jail. He had been arrested in October and charged with receiving stolen property. "Family" members Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten were indicted on murder charges and arrested. Charles "Tex" Watson, whose bloody fingerprint was found at the Tate house, was arrested at his parents' home in Texas. Watson's attorney forestalled his extradition for nine months, arguing that pretrial publicity made it impossible for Watson to get a fair trial in California. The Los Angeles district attorney decided to prosecute the others charged in the Tate-LaBianca slayings without waiting for Watson's arrival.
Atkins Reverses Course
Prosecutors lost Atkins' cooperation in March 1970, three months before the case came to trial. After a short meeting with Manson in jail, she retracted her confession and declared that she had invented the story implicating him, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten before the grand jury.
Although the four "Family" members were to be tried together, the prosecution was required to abide by the rules of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1965 Aranda decision. Statements made by one defendant, such as the stories Atkins told her cellmates about the "Family's" bloody deeds, could not be introduced as evidence against her co-defendants. The prosecution's task was further complicated by the fact that Manson had not been present at the Tate house the night of the slayings. Deputy District Attorneys Aaron Stovitz and Vincent Bugliosi had to try to convict Manson on the seven murder counts based on the theory that the cult leader had ordered the killings.
Manson's request to be allowed to represent himself was denied. At first angered by this refusal, Manson then accepted Irving Kanarek as his attorney. Kanarek had a reputation in legal circles as an "obstructionist," accused of lengthening trials with pointless or improper courtroom tactics. The prosecution formally protested Kanarek's involvement with prophetic warnings that the complicated trial might last much longer than necessary if he were allowed to participate. Kanarek nevertheless became Manson's attorney. By the end of the trial, even Manson grew annoyed with Kanarek's behavior, which earned the verbose attorney numerous contempt citations.
Worldwide publicity about the case made finding an unbiased jury unusually difficult. When Judge Charles H. Older read a press account of a conference in his chambers, the infuriated judge moved to limit public speculation, about the case. He imposed a "gag order" barring the lawyers and witnesses from speaking to the press about matters not entered as evidence. Stenographers and other court officials were forbidden from giving or selling transcripts of the case to the press.
When testimony began July 24, 1970, Manson arrived in court with an "X" scratched on his forehead. He considered the trial a "game" in which he was being judged by a society unworthy and incapable of understanding him. In protest, he had symbolically "X'd" himself from the world. Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten followed Manson's example by burning an X into each of their foreheads.
The most damning prosecution witness was Linda Kasabian, a former "Family" member who was granted immunity in return for her testimony. Over protests by the defense, who held that Kasabian's use of LSD and other drugs had made her incapable of distinguishing fact from fantasy, she described sex orgies, drug use, and Manson's domination of all facets of "Family" life. Like other "Manson girls," Kasabian had once believed that Manson was Jesus Christ.
A "Helter Skelter" Scheme
Kasabian explained Manson's bizarre scenario for "Helter Skelter," a scheme to capitalize on a race war between black and white Americans, which he believed was imminent. Manson expected blacks to win, find themselves incapable of governing, and ultimately turn to him for leadership. The Tate and LaBianca murders were committed to provoke the Helter Skelter holocaust.
"Now is the time for Helter Skelter," Kasabian recalled Manson announcing on August 8, 1969. That night he told her to go with Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Watson. The foursome drove to the Tate house, where Watson cut the phone lines and ordered the others to climb over the fence. Watson stopped Parent's car and shot him before ordering Kasabian back to the "Family" car to guard it. As she waited in shock, Kasabian heard screams coming from the house. She ran toward the cries and found Watson stabbing Frykowski on the lawn. When she saw Krenwinkel chasing Folger with a knife, she fled back to the car in horror.
Out of fear for herself and her child, Kasabian drove to the LaBianca home with Manson and other "Family" members the following night. Manson parked and disappeared with Watson. When Manson returned, he said that he had tied up two people in the nearby house. "Don't let them know that you are going to kill them," Kasabian thought she heard him say before he got back into the car and drove away, leaving Watson, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten behind. Kasabian escaped from the "Family" soon thereafter.
Case Draws Presidential Remark
Kanarek's interruptions of Kasabian's testimony were so incessant that Judge Older sentenced him to a night in jail for contempt. Kasabian was about to be cross-examined when the trial was shaken by comment from an unexpected source. President Richard M. Nixon told reporters in Denver, Colorado, Manson was "guilty, directly or indirectly of eight murders." Nixon's remarks were meant to criticize what he perceived as a tendency of the media to glorify criminals, and the White House quickly issued a statement denying any intent to prejudice the case. Nevertheless, Manson's defense, arguing that such a statement by the president made a fair trial impossible, motioned for a mistrial and demanded that the charges against him be dropped. Judge Older denied the motion.
The next day in court, Manson stood and displayed a newspaper with the headline, "Manson Guilty, Nixon Declares." Judge Older questioned the jurors about their reaction to the headline. Satisfied that they would remain impartial, he ordered the trial to resume and sentenced Atkins' attorney, Daye Shinn, to three nights in jail for leaving the newspaper within Manson's reach.
Former "Family" members and visitors to the Manson commune at the isolated Spahn Movie Ranch testified for the prosecution. Danny De Carlo, one of the motorcycle gang members who furnished police with tips, said that Manson had frequently spoken to him of starting a race war. Once again, Judge Older ordered Kanarek jailed for contempt because of his frequent interruptions.
Former "Family" member Barbara Hoyt testified that she had overheard Atkins describing the murders. Juan Flynn, a Spahn Ranch worker, told the court that Manson had tried to frighten him by holding a knife to his throat and saying, "You son of a bitch, don't you know I'm the one who's doing all of these killings?"
On October 5, Manson demanded to be allowed to cross-examine a detective who had just testified. When Judge Older refused, Manson began to argue. Manson leaped toward the judge with a pencil clutched in his hand, screaming, "In the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off!" Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten chanted as bailiffs struggled to subdue Manson. When the trial resumed, the prosecution called Atkins' former cellmates, who described her bloody account of the Tate murders. Under the Aranda rule, their testimony was limited to Atkins' participation in the killings.
After nearly four months of testimony by prosecution witnesses, the state rested. Attorney Paul Fitzgerald stunned the court by resting the collective defense without calling a single witness. The three "Manson girls" suddenly announced that they wanted to testify on their own behalf, apparently to free Manson by taking sole responsibility for the murders. Fearing their clients would incriminate themselves, the defense attorneys threatened to quit if the judge allowed the testimony. Judge Older accused the defense of trying to wreck the trial.
The impasse was broken when Manson was allowed to speak without the jury present. He gave an angry hour-long statement proclaiming his innocence and condemning society for persecuting him. When he was finished, he told "the girls" not to testify.
As both sides prepared their summations during a Thanksgiving recess, Leslie Van Houten's attorney, Ronald Hughes, disappeared while camping (he was later found dead). The trial was postponed for two weeks to allow Van Houten's new attorney time to study the case. When the trial resumed with final arguments, the prosecution reviewed the abundant testimony about Manson's control over his followers and his messianic "lust for death."
The defense declared that the state had produced no evidence against Manson. Kanarek claimed that Manson was being prosecuted for having a counterculture lifestyle and attacked Kasabian and Watson as the real instigators and murderers. As Kanarek's argument began to consume entire days, Judge Older warned him against using "filibuster" tactics. Kanarek's summation lasted seven days. Van Houten's new attorney, Maxwell Keith, argued more succinctly that the three women should not be convicted if the state's portrayal of them as Manson's "mindless robots" was accurate.
Jury Convicts All Defendants
Manson and his co-defendants were found guilty on January 25, 1971. Under California law, a second trial or "penalty phase" before the same jury then began to determine sentencing. Atkins took the stand and accused Kasabian, not Manson, of ordering the murders. Van Houten and Krenwinkel admitted taking part in the slayings but denied Manson's involvement. After two months of tumultuous testimony, the jury agreed with the prosecution's argument for the death penalty on March 29, 1971.
When the first sentence was pronounced on Manson, he began shouting that he had not been allowed to defend himself. "Better lock your doors and watch your own kids," warned Atkins. "Your whole system is a game," Van Houten exclaimed. The judge ordered all the defendants removed from the courtroom so that the judgments could be read without disruption.
Manson and the others were sentenced to die in the gas chamber. When Tex Watson was tried separately, he also was found guilty and sentenced to death. Yet no Manson case defendants were executed. Their sentences were transmuted to life imprisonment when the state of California abolished its death penalty on February 18, 1972. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional under most circumstances later that year.
Long after the Manson case was over, it continued to create legal problems for William Farr, a Los Angeles newspaper reporter. Early in the trial, Farr wrote a story revealing Atkins' tales to her cellmates of "Family" plans to murder celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor. Judge Older summoned Farr to his chambers and demanded to know who had released the confidential information. Farr refused to answer, citing a state law protecting journalists from being forced to reveal their sources.
After the trial, however, the judge learned that Farr was between jobs as a reporter and ordered him back into court to reveal his source or face a contempt charge. Farr said that two of the attorneys had provided the information, but declined to name them. All of the attorneys involved in the case swore under oath that they had not violated the "gag order." The judge ordered Farr to jail to serve an indefinite sentence for contempt. He was confined for 46 days before he was released to appeal the sentence.
The widely debated case was not resolved until 1976, when an appeals court threw out Judge Older's contempt sentence, ending Farr's numerous trips to court and massive legal bills. California laws were amended to protect former reporters as well as currently working journalists.
Leslie Van Houten was granted a new trial on grounds that Ronald Hughes' disappearance had denied her effective representation, but she was convicted again in 1978. Manson continued to charge that President Nixon's statement had tainted the fairness of his trial. Manson also cited a 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision giving defendants the right to act as their own counsel, but the high court refused to hear Manson's appeal in 1977. In 1985 he was transferred from a state psychiatric prison to the San Quentin penitentiary, where he continues to apply unsuccessfully for parole.
—Thomas C. Smith
Suggestions for Further Reading
Bishop, George. Witness To Evil. Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1971.
Bugliosi, Vincent, with Curt Gentry. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. New York. W.W. Norton & Co., 1974.
Caldwell, Earl. "Manson Co-Defendants Allowed to Testify After Defense Rests." New York Times (November 20, 1970): 22.
Watson, Tex. Will You Die For Me? Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1978.
Wright, Robert A. "Coast Reporter Ordered to Jail For Refusing to Disclose Source." New York Times (November 28, 1972): 36.
"Charles Manson Trial: 1970-71." Great American Trials. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/law-magazines/charles-manson-trial-1970-71
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