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Charles Manson
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The Story Behind The Charles Manson Myth

By James Donahue

Americans have been programmed to think of Charles Manson as a sinister cult leader. At 77, he is grey and bearded now, but for years, when pictured in magazines or television programs, we saw a man with wild hair, dark penetrating eyes, and a swastika etched in blood on his forehead. This image still occasionally pops up on our television screens when the narrator of a story wishes to portray an evil stereotype such as serial killers, doomsday cult leaders or fanatics in general.

It's been over 40 years since Manson's so-called "family" forced their way into the home of famed Hollywood film maker Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate.

People old enough to remember the story know that four young women and one man who lived with Manson on an abandoned movie set in Death Valley, entered Polanski's Los Angeles home on Aug. 8, 1969 and committed five gruesome murders.

Polanski was in Europe for a film shoot and survived the assault. Tate, who was eight-months pregnant, died of multiple stab wounds to the chest and back. The other guests were found shot, stabbed and clubbed multiple times. It was a bloody crime scene and the story shocked the nation. Tait and one of her guests were found hanging by ropes around their neck. A forensic report said they did not die from the hanging.

A few days after the Tate murders, the killers struck again, this time at the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles. The couple was also found stabbed to death multiple times. A knife and fork were left protruding from Leno LaBianca's stomach.

Manson and five of his "followers," Charles "Tex" Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian and Leslie Van Houten were convicted by a jury in 1970 on multiple counts of murder.

What is extraordinary about the case is that Manson was not present during any of the murders. The district attorney, 35-year-old Vincent T. Bugliosi, argued that Manson had created a religious cult and was controlling the minds of the family members around him. Bugliosi charged that Manson ordered the killings because he wanted to start a race war. It was a wild story and totally based on circumstantial evidence. There never has been any proof that Manson's little hippie colony in the desert was involved in any kind of religious or cult practice. They appeared to have been a group of social misfits and dropouts. Because of his dynamic personality, Manson played the role of the leader, but no one has ever proven that the others worshipped him.

Before the trial began, the Manson case became a political issue. President Richard M. Nixon condemned Manson on public television, calling him a dangerous cult leader. In doing this, Nixon publically declared Manson guilty before the evidence ever went before a jury.

The case by this time was drawing national attention and there was the usual media frenzy. By the time the trial started, nearly everyone in the country knew the story and heard Nixon's public allegations. The chances of a fair trial were almost nil.

The trial was a circus. Manson decided to defend himself. He was assisted by attorney Irving Kanarek, an older lawyer, and Ronald Hughes, a "hippie lawyer" who was officially representing Van Houten. Manson showed up on the opening day with a bloody cross slashed across his forehead. During the trial he got into an argument with Superior Court Judge Charles Older and declared: "somebody should cut your head off." Paul Fitzgerald, lawyer for Krenwinkel, spent more time defending Manson than his own client. And Manson's lawyer, Irving Kanarek, rambled on for days in a final statement. It ended when Manson to asked him to sit down.

When the prosecution rested and it was time for the defense to present its case, the lawyers stunned the court when they announced that the defense also rested.  At that moment three of the women stood up and shouted that they wanted to testify. They said they committed the murders on their own and that Manson had nothing to do with it. One writer described their testimony as a "thin Manson ploy."

Hughes, Van Houten's lawyer, objected to the testimony. A few days later, Hughes disappeared and another lawyer had to be appointed to take his place. After the trial was over, Hughes' body was found wedged among some rocks in a remote rural area. It was rumored that the Manson family murdered him.

Even though he maintained his innocence, a jury found Manson guilty of ordering the Tait-LaBianca killings.

Manson and the others were sentenced to death. The sentence later was commuted to life when California laws were changed. At a later date, Manson and four other men, Robert Beausoleil, Charles Watson, Bruce Davis and Steve Grogan, were tried and convicted for the murders of Gary Hinman and Donald Shea. These two men were killed at separate times and in separate places. Manson denied involvement in these murders.

Manson still remains behind bars. A parole board recently ruled against setting him free. He lives in maximum security at California State Prison, Corcoran, California.

Because of the publicity surrounding the case, and the public sentiment that still prevails, nobody expects Manson to ever be released.

It is an odd twist to this story that Charles Manson seems to be where he wants to be. He has rarely known any other life style than the strictly disciplined and confining world of a prisoner. He has been quoted over and over again as saying he has no interest in being set free. That seems to be because Manson doesn't know how to live in the fast-paced, dog-eat-dog society that exists outside of the prison walls.

The political tragedy of the Manson story was that he was turned into a national symbol of the hippie environmental movement. That movement sparked an amazing campaign among young America to save the environment but was stopped cold in its tracks, largely because of the Manson case. The story was used by the slick national propaganda machine representing big business interests and was magnified into the sensational drama it became. Because the murders were committed by hippie types and involved famous Hollywood personalities, the story was skillfully used to generate public sentiment against the hippies and the environmental movement before proposed strict clean air, land and water legislation cost big industry a lot of money.

Thus when Charles Manson fell, he brought the entire hippie movement down with him. That date, Aug. 8, 1969, was a black milestone in world history. Since then, we have been obsessed with a new chemical industrial revolution, the world has been rushing wildly into overpopulation, and the destruction of the planet's ecology has been operating out of control.

Anyone who doubts the effects of what happened only needs to look at the dying life in our oceans, the destruction of our forests, the strange shifts in world weather patterns, and the ugly brown chemical haze that hangs over our landscape.

Because that last-ditch effort to save the planet was stopped, the world now stands condemned. Our planet is now dying and a record six billion people are struggling to stay alive on its sick remains. We are fighting over what is left of our natural resources. The excessive heat and violent storms looming this summer may be only the beginning of the planet's strike against the humans that she has nourished for centuries. The air and water are polluted. Soon food will be in critically short supply. We will be very lucky if any of us are still around in another 10 years.

Richard Nixon's public condemnation of Manson was an evil act. When the final chapter is written, the world may understand that no national leader, even Hitler, has done anything more despicable. By saying what he said, he helped turn the nation against not only Manson, but against the critically important ecology movement. He denied a man the right to a fair trial before an impartial jury. He denied the human race the chance to get itself under control and turn the world green again.

Since that event Charles Manson has been portrayed as the most dangerous person alive. He's not a saint, but Charles Manson has not been shown to be a killer either.

Manson once explained his perspective of the world. In a lengthy public statement to the court, on the day of his sentencing, he said:

"I never went to school, so I never growed up(sic) in the respect to learn to read and write so good. So I have stayed in jail and I have stayed stupid. I have stayed a child while I have watched your world grow up. And then I look at the things that you do and I don't understand.

"I don't understand the courts, and I don't understand a lot of things that are brought against me. You invent stories, and everybody thinks what they do, and then they project it from the witness stand on the defendant as if that is what he did. . .

"I don't think like you people. . . I know that the only person I can judge is me. I judge what I have done and I judge what I do and I live with myself every day. I am content with myself.

"If you put me in the penitentiary that means nothing because you kicked me out of the last one. I didn't ask to get released. I liked it in there because I like myself. I like being with myself. In your world it's hard because your understanding and your values are different."

Indeed. Manson may be illiterate but he seems to see the world around him as it really is.