Fifty years ago, cult leader Charles Manson appeared before the Los Angeles court. He was sentenced to death for a brutal series of murders. But this sentence was never carried out.
As a cult leader, Charles Manson instigated his young followers to commit a brutal series of murders. In 1969, the heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate was killed. An unprecedented trial 50 years ago resulted in the death penalty – which was never carried out.
With his hair shorn close, Charles Manson appeared before the judge in Los Angeles 50 years ago to find out the punishment for a series of brutal murders. A black cross that the then 36-year-old carved into his forehead at the start of the trial in the summer of 1970 was clearly visible. His “girls”, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, had shaved their heads for the reading of the sentence on March 29, 1971. The young women of his self-declared hippie “family” were 21 to 23 years old.
Riot in the courtroom
But none of the four defendants was in the courtroom when the verdict of the twelve-person jury was announced. Manson was rioting loudly when the jury was brought into the room. Judge Charles Older threw the sect leader out after several warnings, as court reporters reported at the time. The women accused of murder and conspiracy to commit murder also rioted and had to leave the room. The sentence for all four: death in the gas chamber.
Two months earlier, after a spectacular trial – the longest in California’s criminal history to date – the jury had voted for “guilty” in seven murders. The jury was shielded from the outside world in a hotel for 225 days. The whole world was fascinated by the diabolical power with which a man could turn a group of white bourgeois children into willing murderers.
In August 1969, Manson had sent his followers armed with bayonets, pistols and knives to the mansion of the heavily pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate. The body of the 26-year-old actress was cruelly mutilated and found the next morning. She and the unborn baby had been stabbed dozens of times. Star hairdresser Jay Sebring and two other friends were also murdered there. In the garden was the body of an 18-year-old who happened to pass the house.
The murderers smeared “pigs” on the wall with the blood of their victims. A day later they struck again and raged in the house of the supermarket chain owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. They too were brutally murdered.
Manson as the mastermind
An important key witness in the process was the former Manson supporter Linda Kasabian, who stood Schmiere on the night of the murder and chauffeured the group. In exchange for a suspended sentence, she testified against the defendants. Manson himself asserted that he had never killed and never incited anyone to do it. In fact, he was not part of the bloodshed, but prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi portrayed him as a satanic monster and mastermind, whom women followed like “mindless robots”.
None of the women accused the leader. They were loyal to Manson, whom they worshiped as “Jesus Christ”. Manson buddies Charles “Tex” Watson, who had struck both nights of the murder, came to trial in Texas. He too was sentenced to death. However, all were spared execution. The sentences were commuted to life imprisonment when the US Supreme Court ruled executions temporarily unconstitutional in 1972.
Natural death behind bars
It was considered impossible that Manson could ever be released. In 2012, the responsible judicial committee rejected his twelfth application for release. After almost five decades behind bars, the notorious inmate died of natural causes in November 2017. He was 83 years old.
Shortly before his 80th birthday, the prison authorities published a photo of inmate number B33920. It showed Manson with a fixed gaze, a long, gray goatee, his skull shaved except for a short clump of hair.
Susan Atkins made 13 appeals for clemency before she died of cancer in prison in 2009 at the age of 61. Patricia Krenwinkel (73) had unsuccessfully asked for mercy for the 14th time in 2017. The gray-haired woman told the pardons committee what she did back then and followed it every day. Leslie Van Houten, 71, received her 22nd rejection from the California governor last November, despite a parole board recommending her release for good conduct.
Not a trace of remorse
Manson had spent most of his youth in correctional and detention centers. In 1967 he met loyal followers in the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco’s hippie scene. An unsuccessful musician but a charismatic speaker, he preached free love, drugs and incited against the establishment.
Manson, who wanted to instigate a racial war between blacks and whites through the murders in order to show himself off as a leader in the end, never showed remorse. In a television interview in 1987, he regretted not having killed hundreds of people. To protect the earth and nature, the population would have to be decimated. Manson lamented about pollution and “social decline” at the time.
His murderous madness became the subject of crime thriller bestsellers, films and even musicals. In 2014 the musical “Charles Manson – Summer of Hate” premiered in Hamburg’s Thalia Theater. Shock rocker Marilyn Manson picked up his name, the Arte documentary “The Demon of Hollywood” (2019) went about his life, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” played in Los Angeles in 1969 before Background to the Manson murders series.