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Manson Murders Still Captivating, Half a Century Later

After the news earlier this week about the long-overdue death of Charles Manson, there were, of course, many responses on the Internet, ranging from celebration to claims that Manson and President Trump had similarities. Countless comments referenced Manson’s fiery destination and his eternity in the depths of hell, with more than one person saying even hell was too good for Manson. What was really too good for Manson was almost forty-six years of life after the jury at his murder trial gave him a death sentence. When the California Supreme Court banned capital punishment in the state, Manson’s sentence was automatically modified to life and, incredibly, he would be eligible for parole. Fortunately, he never had a chance at being granted parole as his crimes were so notorious that he was never going to see freedom. Nor have his three co-defendants, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel. Atkins was even denied ‘compassionate release’ after developing terminal brain cancer and having a leg amputated. She died in prison. Van Houten has been recommended for parole twice now, but Governor Jerry Brown did something right for once and overruled the parole board, denying her parole in 2016. Her current request and approval from the parole board is waiting for his decision. I would be surprised if he did not overrule the board again Van Houten and Krenwinkel will also likely die in prison, where they belong. They also escaped their death sentence and have had forty-six years of life that they should not be living.

What’s kept the public interest in this case alive for almost fifty years is the uniqueness of the murders and why they occurred. Manson’s occasional interviews over the years have helped add to his mystique as he displayed the apparent charisma he used to convince his followers to commit murder for him. After spending more than half of his life in prison by 1967, Manson was said to be mostly illiterate but he learned the art of manipulation from other prisoners. Once he obtained his freedom the counterculture of the ’60s was in full bloom and he had no difficulty locating impressionable, damaged young people who were looking for an authority figure preaching a doctrine that harmonized with what they wanted to hear. He was a self-styled Jesus and gave them the acceptance they sought, with the only requirement being total devotion and obedience to him. Krenwinkel later said, “There wasn’t one thing done – that was even allowed to be done – without his express permission.”

On August 9, 1969, Manson dispatched Atkins, Krenwinkel, Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, and Linda Kasabian to a house in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, with orders to kill everyone there and make it “as gruesome as possible.” They did as he ordered and the five people the group found at the house were murdered in a horrific manner. The next night, the same group, with the addition of Leslie Van Houten and Steve ‘Clem’ Grogan, was sent out on another mission of murder. Manson himself went along this time so he could “show them how to do it.” A house on Waverly Drive, Los Angeles was selected by Manson and the two residents were violently murdered.

Those interested in the details of the case should read Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who convicted Manson and three others of the August murders. I found Bugliosi’s narrative to be a bit self-serving at times, but the details he provides along with insights of the case that could only be known to the prosecutor make his the quintessential book on the Manson Family murders. What’s interesting to note is that although Manson and Bugliosi were born only three months apart in 1934, because his death sentence was commuted to life Manson managed to outlive his prosecutor by two and a half years.

The Manson trial captivated the nation and lasted from June 15, 1970 to March 29, 1971. At one point even President Nixon commented on the trial, declaring Manson guilty before the jury even began deliberating. Manson, Atkins, Van Houten, and Krenwinkel were all convicted and sentenced to death. Almost half a century later, Van Houten and Krenwinkel still sit in prison and keep trying for parole. I can’t see them ever being successful. Even when the parole board stupidly voted to grant Van Houten parole, public opinion on releasing them has been such that Governor Jerry Brown has chosen not to release her.

Manson claimed at one point during his trial to have “put five people in the ground,” but there are no known murders said to have been actually committed by him. The proven body count for the Manson Family has remained at nine, yet half a century later the murders they committed have remained among the nation’s most notorious. Many others have murdered dozens and in more gruesome fashion, but more people are familiar with the Manson murders than most of the serial killers of the last fifty years. Since 1969, the year of the Manson murders, there have been over two hundred serial killers captured, many of them with confirmed victims numbering in the dozens. Yet scant few have recognizable names. Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and Gary Ridgway are some of the more well-known serial killers, yet most people have not heard of all of them but do know the name Charles Manson.

What makes the Manson murders distinct is that the primary man responsible for the murders did not actually commit any of the murders. He used his influence over his followers to get them to commit the murders for him. Manson was evil personified and his willing subjects embraced his wickedness, adopting it for their own and then acting upon it voluntarily. They wanted to please their god and butchering innocent people was what their god told them to do. Were the Manson murders were a phenomenon of the sixties? Let us hope so. Manson’s assemblage of his followers was at a time when many young adults were rebelling against everything – their parents, society, morality, the government, even their own futures. He came along at just the right time to pluck some willing disciples from the masses, molding them into lethal devotees who were happy to slaughter upon command.

Manson’s death does not close the book on the carnage of August 9 and 10, 1969. Three of the murderers from those two long-ago nights – Van Houten, Krenwinkel, and Watson – remain incarcerated, hopefully until their own deaths. But even when time accomplishes what the State of California chose not to, the Manson murder mythology will live on; a constant reminder that unmitigated evil exists among us, waiting for the next Charles Manson to preach his drivel and unleash hell on the unsuspecting.

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