How Charles Manson Could Have Been Acquitted

Stephen Lee
6 min readAug 9, 2019
Charles Manson being escorted from the courtroom after being found guilty of seven murders. Bettmann/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, actress Sharon Tate and six other people were killed in two sets of murders carried out in August 1969 at the direction of Charles Manson. A year and a half later, Manson was convicted of these murders.

But he might have been acquitted if his case had been handled differently.

The book Helter Skelter by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry is a classic of the true-crime genre, and it holds up today as an amazing case study with lessons for prosecutors, defense lawyers, and even criminal defendants. New prosecutors and veterans alike should read it to see how to build a case step by step. And defense lawyers also should read it to see what they could have done differently.

Two points from Helter Skelter stand out and provide useful lessons for a defendant facing criminal charges and going to trial today.

First, delaying the trial may help the government more than it helps the defendant.

Manson was indicted on December 8, 1969. At that time, the government had enough evidence to establish probable cause that Manson committed the murders, but even Bugliosi himself admitted that the case was “weak” and that the government did not have enough to prove the case at trial. There had been a rush to charge, in part because of the public attention, and also because of the possibility that Manson could be released from custody (he had been detained since October 1969 on an unrelated charge).

If Manson had demanded a speedy trial, Bugliosi wrote in Helter Skelter, “we were in deep trouble.” At the time of indictment, the case against Manson rested almost entirely on the testimony of a participant in the crime, Susan Atkins. Police had not recovered the murder weapons and had no good evidence of the motive for the murder. The case was “anemic” without Atkins, and the case soon was without Atkins — she repudiated her testimony and ultimately stood trial with Manson.

To get more time, Bugliosi wrote:

“I suggested we bluff. Every time we were in court, we should indicate that we wanted to go to trial as quickly as possible. Our hope was that Manson would think this was bad, and start stalling himself.”

Stephen Lee

Lawyer, former federal prosecutor in Chicago (2008–January 2019), former newspaper reporter. Work site at