On August 8, 1969, Charles Manson, who was the dynamic cult leader of “The Family,” sent three female members of the Family, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian, along with a fourth male Family member, Charles “Tex” Watson into Bel-Air on a mission for murder. The foursome stopped at 10050 Cielo Drive, where Sharon Tate, the actress and pregnant wife of Roman Polanski, were renting a home owned by Rudi Altobelli. She was spending time with coffee heiress Abigail Folger, her lover, Voytek Frykowski, and hair stylist Jay Sebring. That night, The Family members, sans Kasabian who was waiting in the car, descended upon the house and killed all four people, stabbing them 102 times in total. Tate was the last to die, murdered by Watson and held down by Atkins, who used Tate’s blood to scrawl “PIG” on the porch wall. A friend of the caretaker’s, a teenager named Steven Parent, was also murdered on site by Tex Watson. Like all the rest, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The next night, members of The Family descended upon the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Manson chose Watson, Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten to brutally kill the couple in their home in hopes of starting “Helter Skelter,” an impending apocalyptic race war that he preached about.
After a long and winding investigation, Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten were apprehended and charged with seven counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder for the deaths of Abigail Ann Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Earl Parent, Sharon Tate Polanski, Jay Sebring and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.
Manson and the three women were tried together. Tex Watson was tried separately (and found guilty of seven murders and one conspiracy to commit murder). Their high-profile and lengthy trial began June 15, 1970 in the eighth floor courtroom of Judge Charles Older in the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles. The prosecutor was famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who had an astounding win record. The state’s star prosecution witness was Kasabian, who had been at both murders, but had not committed any.
When opening statements began on July 24, 1970, Manson entered the courtroom with a bloody “X” on his forehead, which he said was because “I have X’d myself from your world.” Kasabian was on the stand for eighteen days, including seven days of cross-examination by Manson’s attorney Irving Kanarek. While on the stand, Kasabian told the jury that no Family member dared refuse an order from Manson: “We always wanted to do anything and everything for him.”
Kasabian testified that she didn’t want to go to the second night of murders, but went anyway “because Charlie asked me and I was afraid to say no.”
On August 3, Manson almost derailed the trial when he stood up with a copy of the Los Angeles Times that head the headline, “MANSON GUILTY, NIXON DECLARES.” The defense tried to get a mistrial on the grounds that the headline prejudiced the jury, but Judge Older denied the motion after polling each juror, who stated that their decision would not be influenced by the President’s opinion.
In a shocking move, Kanarek surprised the courtroom and prosecution when he announced that the defense would rest without calling a single witness. However, the three female defendants began shouting that they wanted to testify. In Judge’s chambers, the lawyers for the women stated that their clients that they did not want their clients to testify but that the women wanted to testify that they planned and committed the murders without Manson’s help. Older resumed the trial and allowed the defendant’s’ testimony despite their counsel’s objections.
The next day, Manson announced that he wished to testify on his own behalf and wanted to do so before his co-defendants did. Without the jury being present (so that potentially excludable testimony could be identified before it prejudiced the jury), Manson testified for over an hour. After Bugliosi’s cross-examination, Older asked if Manson wanted to testify before the jury, to which he responded, “I have already relieved all the pressure I had.” Manson left the stand and as he walked by his three co-defendants, “You don’t have to testify now.”
During a 10-day recess from the trial, Van Houten’s lawyer, Ronald Hughes, disappeared while on a camping trip in November 1970. One theory is that Manson ordered his murder because Hughes was attempting to mount a different defense than the one Manson favored. Hughes supposedly wanted to separate Manson’s interests from his client’s. Despite the Hughes’ apparent no-show, Judge Older ordered the trial to proceed and appointed Van Houten a new attorney, Maxwell Keith, on December 2. Hughes’ body was found in March 1971, but no one has ever been charged in connection his death.
In his closing argument, Kanarek argued that the female defendants committed the Tate and LaBianca murders out of a love of the true mastermind, Tex Watson. The defense attorney also argued that the hippie Manson was being persecuted because of his “lifestyle.” Kanarak’s closing argument lasted seven days.
The jury deliberated a week and came to an agreement on January 25, 1971. The jury found all defendants guilty on each count of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder for the deaths of Abigail Ann Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Earl Parent, Sharon Tate Polanski, Jay Sebring and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.
On March 29, 1971, the jury sentenced each of the four defendants to death. When the jury announced the sentence, Manson shouted, “You people have no authority over me.” Patricia Krenwinkel declared, “You have judged yourselves.” Susan Atkins said, “Better lock your doors and watch your own kids.” Leslie Van Houten said, “The whole system is a game.” The death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1972 so the murderers were spared.
The trial lasted nine months–it was the longest and most expensive trial in the nation’s history.
On December 13, 1971, Manson was convicted of first-degree murder for the July 25, 1969 death of musician Gary Hinman. He was also convicted of first-degree murder for the August 1969 death of Donald Jerome “Shorty” Shea.
Manson died in prison on Nov. 19, 2017.