Famous American Trials Series: Charles Manson

2010 February 4
by Darcie

Although there have been courtroom trials since the Greek days with the trial of Socrates, we would say that Americans are more captured by courtroom drama these days with the plethora of cameras and the Internet. But what are the most memorable trials in recent years? Read the rest of our series with the courtroom sagas of OJ Simpson, Bill Clinton and more.

Charles Manson in court

Charles Manson in court

One of the century’s biggest trials spawned from the murder of actress Sharon Tate. Prior to her murder, however, Charles Manson gained notoriety for his “family,” which consisted basically a harem of women who followed Manson around as he spouted off philosophy and slightly Scientologist advice.

In 1968 Manson became acquaintances with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who would eventually introduce him to the man who rented out his home to Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski. He and the Family set up camp in the desert to prepare for a race war Manson wanted to create between whites and African Americans.

After a couple of murders by the Family that Manson thought might help start his war in August 1969, Manson instructed his followers to go to the Tate house and “totally destroy everyone in it.” They killed five people, including an 8 and ½ months pregnant Tate, by stabbing them repeatedly.

Sharon Tate, the day of her murder

Sharon Tate, the day of her murder

The next night Manson accompanied the Family on the murders of supermarket exec Leno LiBianca and his wife, who were both stabbed by a bayonet.

LAPD ruled the two murders as unconnected and a few days after discovering the homicides, they picked up Manson and 25 members of the Family for drug charges that were later dropped. The breakthrough in the cases came from the arrest of Family members connected with one of the earlier murders after gang members suggested a connection between all the murders.

After one of the members confessed, evidence such bloody clothing, knives and finger prints were found, and all members involved in the attacks were apprehended. In June 1970, the trial commenced with the prosecution’s main witness being a Family member not involved with the killings, who was promised immunity for testifying against Manson.

Originally, the judge reluctantly granted Manson permission to act as his own attorney. Because of his conduct, including violations of a gag order and submission of “outlandish” and “nonsensical” pretrial motions, the permission was withdrawn before the start of the trial. Manson filed an affidavit of prejudice against the judge, who was later replaced. On Friday, July 24, the first day of testimony, Manson appeared in court with an X carved into his forehead (later changed into a swastika) and issued a statement that he was “considered inadequate and incompetent to speak or defend [him]self” — and had “X’d [him]self from [the establishment's] world.”

The prosecution placed the triggering of Manson’s so-called uprising, called “Helter Skelter,” as the main motive. The crime scenes’ bloody Beatles’ references—pig, rise, helter skelter—were correlated with testimony about Manson predictions that the murders blacks would commit at the outset of Helter Skelter would involve the writing of “pigs” on walls in victims’ blood.

Some Family members attempted to dissuade witnesses from testifying by threatening and poisoning some witnesses. Throughout the trial, which was heavily publicized and even commented on by President Nixon, there were many distractions and setbacks, and on October 5, after being denied the court’s permission to question a prosecution witness whom the defense attorneys had declined to cross-examine, Manson leaped over the defense table and attempted to attack the judge.

On November 16, the prosecution rested its case. Three days later, after arguing standard dismissal motions, the defense stunned the court by resting as well, without calling a single witness. Shouting their disapproval, the women defendants demanded their rights to testify. The women’s lawyers told the judge their clients wanted to testify that they had planned and committed the crimes and that Manson had not been involved. By resting their case, the defense lawyers had tried to stop this. In the prosecutor’s view, it was Manson who was advising the women to testify in this way as a means of saving himself.

The next day, Manson testified.  Speaking for more than an hour, Manson said, among other things, that “the music is telling the youth to rise up against the establishment.” He said, “Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music.” “To be honest with you,” Manson also stated, “I don’t recall ever saying ‘Get a knife and a change of clothes and go do what Tex says.”

Disruptions of the prosecution’s closing argument by the defendants led the judge to ban the defendants from the courtroom for the remainder of the guilt phase. It had become obvious the defendants were acting in collusion with each other and were simply putting on a performance.

On January 25, 1971, guilty verdicts were returned against the four defendants on each of the twenty-seven separate counts against them. The women defendants quickly tried to exonerate Manson during their testimonies.

The effort to exonerate Manson failed and on March 29, 1971, the jury returned verdicts of death against all four defendants on all counts. On April 19, 1971, the judge sentenced the four defendants to death.

Charles Mansons latest photo, May 2009

Charles Manson's latest photo, May 2009

In February 1972, the death sentences of all five parties were automatically reduced to life in prison by California v. Anderson in which the Supreme Court of California abolished the death penalty in that state.

In the ‘80s, Manson gave a handful of notable interviews, including one with Charlie Rose, which won an Emmy award.

On May 23, 2007, Manson was denied parole for the eleventh time. He will not be eligible to apply for parole again until 2012.

See what the prosecuting attorney had to say about this infamous trial. Also, read Los Angeles Magazine’s recent feature on the murder, which marked its 40th anniversary in August.

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