The Family That Slays Together Stays Together

by Arthur B

Vincent Bugliosi's account of the Manson murders remains one of the best sources on the subject.
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The phenomenon of American lawyers writing books about famous cases they have been involved with isn’t really surprising - if anything, I’m personally surprised we don’t see more doing it. A key skill of being a good trial lawyer is being able to present a believable and engaging narrative to the court which persuasively accounts for all the evidence; in addition, anyone performing this task in a jury trial needs to be able to make this narrative clear and understandable to a cross-section of the general public who don't necessarily have any specialised knowledge of the subjects at hand. Any diligent attorney’s case file would consequently already provide most of the necessary research and documentation necessary to produce a book.

Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, produced with the aid of Curt Gentry, is a particularly good example of the genre. Although any attorney’s account of a trial is necessarily going to partial towards the case they presented, Bugliosi is of the school of lawyers who believes in making an open and honest assessment of their case’s flaws and gaps. Whilst you might think a prosecution lawyer wouldn’t want to introduce gaps in their story or failings in the police investigation into their case, it’s ultimately good practice to own up to such things: in any area of law, if you are able to identify the weaknesses in your own case and present them to the court first, before the other side do, it allows you to get whatever response or explanation you want to present for them in first, and it means the other side can’t pull it out and confront you with it like it was something you were trying to hide.

Helter Skelter is billed as “The World’s No. True Crime Bestseller” on my edition, and to be honest I can believe it, because it’s Bugliosi’s account of the Tate-LaBianca murder spree that saw Charles Manson become the grim punchline to the hippie dreams of the 1960s. It’s a 666 page account of the discovery of the murders, the associated police investigation, the development of the prosecution case, and an account of the trial itself and its aftermath. In addition, though it doesn’t extensively focus on life within the Manson Family (a topic documented by others elsewhere), the book necessarily includes an examination of the Family’s lifestyle and philosophy. This is partially because it was vital to the prosecution case against Manson that his dictatorial control over his followers be established by the evidence; another reason for this is that Manson’s Helter Skelter conspiracy theory which motivated the killings was so ludicrous that Bugliosi knew that he’d need to have numerous different witnesses attest to it, otherwise nobody would believe it.

It is particularly valuable that such an in-depth summation of the prosecution case is available to us, because the actual archives of the Charles Manson trial are ridiculously huge - it was, at the time, the longest-running murder trial in American history at nine and a half months. Part of this was due to the incredible stalling tactics engaged in by Irving Kanarek, who would ultimately be Manson’s main defence lawyer (after Manson churned through a series of different lawyers until it became apparent that he couldn’t keep delaying things by doing so). Kamarel was infamous in California legal circles for obstructive tactics - Bugliosi mentions an anecdote in which Kanarek objected to an opposing attorney asking a witness their name, on the grounds that the witness would have only learned their name from their mother and therefore their own name is hearsay - and his antics during the trial are colourfully laid out here, to such an extent that Kanarek would sue Bugliosi for libel over the book after it came out. Nothing came of the libel suit, I suspect because Bugliosi included enough references to matters on the public record; for instance, Kanarek was found in contempt of court by the presiding Judge Older numerous times due to his tactics, and that would be a matter of record that Kanarek couldn’t well deny later on.

That said, Kamarel seems to have been the most effective of the defence team, at least in the sense that he occasionally scored points against the prosecution case and in the sense that he kept in mind who his client was - Charles Manson. Many of the other defence attorneys end up appearing in a very bad light in this book; acting as they were for the various Manson family members who had been dispatched by Charlie on their “creepy crawlie” murder sprees, they should have prioritised the defence of their clients over defending Manson. Arguing that the Manson Family as a whole had nothing to do with the murders: fine. Arguing that their clients were not criminally responsible due to the hold Manson had established over them as cult leader, whilst perhaps a difficult case to convince a Manson loyalist to go along with, was just as legitimate, and in fact this is the course the better defence lawyers maintained over the course of the case.

However, a disturbing proportion of the defence lawyers ended up presenting arguments that seemed to prioritise defending Manson over defending their clients. In principle, this is a huge ethical breach; in practice, given that the defendants remained solidly devoted to Manson throughout the trial (right down to carving X’s into their foreheads in imitation of Manson the day after he unveiled this hip new forehead decoration in court), and given the high turnover of lawyers that resulted from Manson’s disagreements with defence strategy, it seems evident that the defence team was working under incredibly unusual circumstances which made more than a few of them either lose sight of their professional responsibilities or take the view that if their clients really wanted them to prioritise defending Manson over defending them, they should abide by their client’s wishes.

(The latter view is understandable, but not necessarily correct; rules of legal professional ethics vary from venue to venue, but one of the recurring themes is that the customer is not always right and there are certain course of action that it might be in the personal best interests for your client for you to take, but which you must refuse to do on ethical grounds, to the point where you’re expected to stop working for a client rather than take an unethical course of action.)

However, by its nature, the book’s greatest blind spot is not what went on in the Manson Family - plenty of witnesses were able to discuss that. No, the biggest gap we have consists of what went on in private amongst the defence team, and the interactions between the defence lawyers and their clients (which are naturally a matter of professional privilege). This is a real shame, because it’s evident from Bugliosi’s description of their behaviour that something strange was going on in defence circles, but a definitive inside view of what was going on there is missing and it seems unlikely we will ever know precisely what was up there; aside from several of the defence lawyers doubtless not wanting to revisit a less-than-PR-friendly part of their CV, they wouldn’t be able to discuss much unless their clients agreed to waive attorney-client privilege.

Moreover, at least one defence attorney didn’t make it to the end of the trial. Ronald Hughes, the “hippie lawyer” and the member of the defence team that Bugliosi has the kindest words for, wasn’t about to go along with the plan to have the women take the fall to let Charlie off the hook, and was very explicit about it (“I refuse to take part in any proceeding where I am forced to push a client out the window”). Hughes took a camping trip during a break in the trial, during which he disappeared; his body was not found for months, to an extent where it was impossible for the coroner to declare a cause of death, but Bugliosi clearly believes that Hughes was assassinated on Manson’s order (remember, a substantial number of Family members were out and free during the trial).

Between the disappearing lawyers, Manson and his acolytes’ outbursts in court, Kanarek’s obstructive tactics and an attempt on the judge’s life by Manson himself, plus the threatening behaviour of those Family members on the outside, the trial section of the book, far from being the dry affair it might have otherwise been, ends up being just as wild as the crimes involved. The Manson Family crimes are particularly prone to being sensationalised, and there’s an extent to which Helter Skelter is guilty of this, but to a large extent this is unavoidable; even a simple recitation of the facts seems bizarre and outlandish, even before you get into Manson’s Beatles-based vision of apocalyptic race war.

At the same time, Bugliosi’s discussion of the case here does at least shy away from the most cartoonish depictions of the incident. In particular, Bugliosi does not buy into the simplistic idea that the Family members were abused, brainwashed drones with no culpability for their actions. As he explains it, a key aspect of Manson’s recruitment process for the Family - particularly for the Family’s violent activities - involved selecting recruits who already had some inclination towards the behaviours he wanted to tease out. Manson deliberately cultivated potential recruits who seemed to be in the market for a guru or father figure in their life in the first place, and when arranging “creepy crawlie” missions picked out candidates who seemed to have sufficient rage and resentment at the world to be capable of violence. If you didn’t dig the idea of following Manson’s lead, odds are you didn’t stick around the Family for very long anyway; if Manson didn’t think you could be trusted to butcher a whole household to inspire a race war, he didn’t ask you to.

Additionally, the facts of the story also put paid to the myth of Manson as some sort of super-hypnotic evil genius. Sure, those who became loyal to him had this unnerving tendency to become really creepily loyal to him - but these consisted of the few who decided they wanted to buy into what he had to offer, not the many who turned him down. Likewise, of the team he selected to take out Sharon Tate and company, one was too squeamish to participate in the actual violence and stayed outside for it, later on fleeing the Family and becoming a defence witness, and one other enjoyed the killing so much she had to brag about it to her roommates in jail after being arrested on an unrelated charge.

In other words, in Bugliosi’s view being a Manson-style cult leader is a lot like being a pickup artist: if you just ask enough people to join your dune buggy-riding Death Valley murder-and-free-love cult, a certain proportion will say “yes”.
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Comments (go to latest)
Ronan Wills at 14:41 on 2018-10-18
I just put this on my Amazon wishlist the other day. I guess I'll move it a few notches up the eternal queue.
Alice at 18:43 on 2018-10-18
It’s a 666 page account

... was this deliberate on the part of the author/publishers? o_O

This book sounds fascinating, I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.
Arthur B at 02:34 on 2018-10-19
Deliberate on the part of Bugliosi or his publishers, no. I can't 100% rule out a layout person with a dark sense of humour going for it on realising that the book had close to the right amount of material.
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