How Charles Manson Could Have Been Acquitted

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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.”

Manson fell for it. And because Manson did not demand a speedy trial, the government had enough time to build a solid case. By the time the government gave its opening statement in July 1970, the government had gotten another participant in the crime to cooperate (Linda Kasabian), had found multiple examples of independent evidence that corroborated her testimony, had found the gun used in the Tate murders, and identified witnesses who could establish the “helter-skelter” motive that drove Manson. Some of this probably would not have been available if Manson had gone to trial more quickly.

Defendants today should consider whether the government made a similar rush to charge them. When that happens, mistakes can get made and corners can be cut. Demanding a speedy trial denies the government time to fix those mistakes and to repair those corners.

Second, conceding some issues to the government may be more effective than fighting every issue.

The biggest problem for the government’s case against Manson was that Manson did not go to Sharon Tate’s home and was not present when Charles Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel actually invaded the home and killed the five people there. Manson was personally at Leno and Rosemary La Bianca’s home the next night along with Atkins, Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Steve Grogan, though this was dependent on the testimony of the cooperating witness (Kasabian).

Bugliosi knew that the trial would turn on an issue for which there was no physical evidence.

“Would you believe the prosecutor if he told you that a little runt out at Spahn Ranch sent some half-dozen people, the majority of them young girls, out to murder for him, their victims not persons they knew and had a grudge against but complete strangers, including a pregnant woman, and that without argument they did it? To convince a jury of this, I would have first to convince them of Manson’s domination over the Family, and particularly over his co-defendants … Domination. Unless we could prove this, beyond a reasonable doubt, we’d never obtain a conviction against Manson.”

Given all this, Manson and his co-defendants could have adopted a narrow defense strategy that accepted the government’s strengths and that highlighted its weaknesses. At least one of the three co-defendants at trial was going to be convicted (Patricia Krenwinkel’s fingerprint had been found at the Tate home, and Krenwinkel, Atkins and Van Houten each had confessed to some future government witness about her involvement), and they could have pleaded guilty and then testified on Manson’s behalf, emphasizing his lack of involvement.

Instead, Manson and his co-defendants fought every issue, losing credibility and drowning out their best points as they tried to win every point. Krenwinkel’s lawyer tried to explain away her fingerprint by suggest that Krenwinkel had been invited to the Tate home. And Manson’s lawyer tried to suggest that Manson simply was the equivalent of a politician who said outrageous things and that he was being persecuted because of his lifestyle. Defense lawyers did not even give opening statements, missing a chance to focus the jury’s attention on the vulnerabilities in the government’s case.

This left the jury to consider (1) a government case that explained most of what happened in the Tate murders and in the La Bianca murders and that was corroborated in some significant parts and (2) defense arguments that attacked the government witnesses but offered no coherent explanation for how the defendants might have been wrongfully connected to the murders. The defense would have been better served by admitting most of the disputed facts and focusing the jury’s attention on the domination issue that Bugliosi himself had been most worried about.

In fact, this almost happened at the very end of the trial. When the government rested its case, all three of Manson’s co-defendants said that they wanted to testify, apparently to say that they had planned and executed the murders themselves without Manson’s involvement. Manson apparently had second thoughts about the strategy, and no defendant ultimately testified. Had Manson stuck with the strategy, and had he implemented it before the trial even started, the trial would have been very different, and the outcome would have been less certain. (After all were convicted, each of Manson’s co-defendants did testify along these lines during the penalty phase of the trial, though they had lost most if not all credibility by that point.)

Defendants facing trial today should try to learn from Manson’s mistake. Choose your battles. Do not waste your credibility on weak arguments. Accept the points that the government will almost definitely win, and focus the jury’s attention instead on the points where the government is vulnerable or where your testimony can make a difference. Fraud cases, for example, often boil down to the defendant’s state of mind. Some defendants would be far better off arguing that they were too mistaken or too naïve or even too dumb to have intentionally and/or willfully committed fraud, rather than trying to argue that everything that they did was perfect or that nothing bad had happened.

The Manson trial was one of the most famous criminal cases of the 20th century and continues to deserve that reputation today, and not just through the notoriety of the crimes and its lead defendant. Prosecutors, defense lawyers, and defendants themselves could all benefit from the lessons the trial offers.

Stephen Chahn Lee is a former federal prosecutor.

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