Life with Father
Monday, Feb. 15, 1971
The trial of Charles Manson and his tribe was from the beginning like a species of absurdist theater. The defense, in effect, was no defense at all. The lawyers representing Manson and the three women charged with the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders had no outside witnesses to help their case. The attorneys were afraid to put the women on the stand, believing that they would take full responsibility for the killings in order to absolve Manson.
Thus the defense rested without bringing any of the accused to the stand within the jurors' hearing; all four were found guilty of first-degree murder. Curiously, it was only last week, when the court reconvened for a jury trial to determine punishment,* that the defense began probing into the backgrounds of Manson's cultists, trying to suggest to the jury the psychological force that bound them to him.
At stake now is the question of life sentences v. the death penalty. The defense tried to sow some doubts in the minds of an essentially middle-class jury that could only find the Manson tribe and its life-style as incomprehensible as''its crimes. Women like Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Susan Atkins, the defense meant to show, could have been the jurors' own daughters.
Joseph Krenwinkel, 59, a stocky life insurance agent from Inglewood, described his daughter as a gentle child who loved animals, was once a Camp Fire Girl, sang in church choirs and attended summer Bible school. Then one day in 1967, said Krenwinkel, Pat abandoned her car in a parking lot, left two paychecks uncollected at the insurance office where she worked and, at age 19, disappeared with a man named Charlie Manson. A week later, from Seattle, she sent her father a letter: "For the very first time in my life, I have found inner contentment and inner peace. I love you very much. Take good care of yourself."
Jane Van Houten told much the same story about her daughter Leslie, a Camp Fire Girl, who took up the sousaphone in the sixth grade, was a homecoming princess at Monrovia High School. She even showed a picture of Leslie in her Halloween ballerina costume. "It was an outfit with a pink tutu," said Mrs. Van Houten, "and she got sick and couldn't go out on Halloween, so she wore it all the time she was in bed." In the summer of 1968, when she was 19, Leslie phoned her mother "to say that she was going to drop out and that I would not be hearing from her."
Squeaky described the tribe's radically unordered life: "You could say it's a nonsense world of Alice in Wonderland, but it makes a lot of sense. Everybody makes their own rules . . . Each moment is different." One day, she said, a family member named Mary Brunner "had her baby in this old condemned house and we delivered it. We called him Sunstone Hawk, because at the time she had him, the sun was just rising, and a hawk flew over the house."
Another follower, Nancy Pitman, 19, described Manson's almost Franciscan mysticism. "Animals would come around him a lot," she testified. Once she saw him pet a rattlesnake and bring a dead bird back to life.
Sandy Good, 27, who was raised in a wealthy San Diego family, said: "The energy in that man you have not seen. I believe his voice could shatter this building."
The dilemma of the defense lawyers is that the women convicted of murder with Manson will be equally devoted should they take the stand, possibly starting this week. There is speculation that eventually both Paul Fitzgerald and Maxwell Keith, lawyers for Krenwinkel and Van Houten, will turn on Manson in their summary arguments and claim that the women were victims of Manson's will. Even though the women have already been convicted, the lawyers may, through an argument of "diminished capacity," try to save them from death sentences. On the other hand, if the women do try to absolve Manson by claiming all of the guilt for themselves, that in itself might be an illustration of Manson's weird hold over them.
* In capital cases, California and four other states require two trials—one to determine guilt or innocence and a second to set punishment. Thus twelve citizens, rather than a single judge, assume the responsibility for assigning a death penalty.