The Sinister Influence of Charles Manson (New Yorker)

The Sinister Influence of Charles Manson

The trial of O. J. Simpson took place in the charmless Los
Angeles Criminal Courts Building, on West Temple Street, in 1995. When court
broke for the day, those of us who covered the trial would walk out the
front door and stare at the empty hulk across the street—the Hall of
Justice, which had been built in 1925 but was damaged in an earthquake,
and stood unoccupied and abandoned. Still, in some way, we knew that our
work had been invented in that crumbling structure, because that’s where
the trial of Charles Manson took place.

Manson died on Sunday—remarkably, he was eighty-three years old.
His era had long passed by the time of his death, but his legacy was
surprisingly durable. In media, in criminal law, and in popular culture,
Manson created a template that, for better or worse, is still familiar

Manson’s name is virtually synonymous with mass murder, so for people
who are only vaguely aware of his story it often comes as a surprise to
learn that he never killed anyone. In the late nineteen-sixties, he was
the leader of a cult called the Family—the trial ushered in the wide
use of the term “cult,” to note one example of Manson’s broad influence.
Based on a ranch, in the desert outside Los Angeles, Manson exercised
mesmerizing power over a small band of followers. On
the night of August 8, 1969, Charles (Tex) Watson and three women, acting on
Manson’s direction, went to the Hollywood Hills home of Sharon Tate, an
actress who was eight and a half months pregnant, and slaughtered her
and four of her friends. Two nights later, at a house in a different Los
Angeles neighborhood, the same quartet, this time joined by two more
Family members and Manson, killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. (Manson
left before the murders were committed.)

Manson and his followers were arrested some weeks later (on suspicion of stealing
cars), and it took some time not only for police to connect them to the
murders but even for the two sets of killings to be linked to each
other. Manson’s trial in the Tate case began in June, 1970. The case was
a media spectacle; although cameras were not allowed in courtrooms at
that time, it helped create the demand for them. Manson had a dark
charisma, and he enjoyed the attention. The trial was such a sensation
that President Richard Nixon pronounced Manson guilty before the jury had gone out; the judge declined a request for a
mistrial. (This anticipated President Donald Trump’s public condemnation
of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl
, before his court martial for desertion was

But it was really in the aftermath of the trial that the case, and
Manson himself, became fixed in the public imagination. Vincent
Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor, wrote an account of it, called “Helter
,”after the Beatles song that Manson said had served as his inspiration.
The book helped create the true-crime genre, which remains a publishing

The Manson “Family” both anticipated and inspired the growth of sinister
cults in American life, especially in California. In the decade that
followed the Manson murders, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped
Patty Hearst, in Berkeley, and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, in San
Francisco, transfixed supporters, more than nine hundred of whom
committed mass suicide in Guyana. Before Manson, it was more or less a
given that criminals chose to associate with one another in gangs or in
crime families. But Manson told the world that people became criminals
through the influence of others, as well. Our fascination with Stockholm
syndrome and brainwashing owes much to what the world saw in the Manson

The Hall of Justice reopened a few years ago, after a thorough
renovation. Many who practice in its courtrooms today were not even born
when Manson stood trial. But, whether they know it or not, the lawyers
there, and the journalists who follow them, are working in the long
shadow of the man who just died.


via New Yorker

November 20, 2017 at 04:51PM