One of the most famous court cases in American history is the Manson Family trial for the Tate-LaBianca murders in the summer of 1969. The cult’s violent attacks had started as early as July 1, when leader Charles Manson shot Bernard Crowe, a man he mistakenly thought was a Black Panther. Crowe survived to testify against Manson, but over the next few months, the cult killed at least nine people, including a stunt man named Donald “Shorty” Shea, whose body wasn’t discovered for nearly a decade.
At the time, the killings that received the most attention were the murders of actress Sharon Tate and four guests at her Los Angeles home on the night of August 8. The next night, cult members murdered prominent businesspeople Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their Los Angeles home. The next year, the Tate-Labianca murder trial unnerved Americans with what it revealed about the Manson Family.
It wasn’t until the trial that Americans learned Manson’s bizarre motivation for these brutal slayings: to spark what he called “Helter Skelter,” a “race war” that would end with his rise to power. (He believed the Beatles predicted this on the White Album, which is why he named “Helter Skelter” after one of the album’s songs.) It was one of the many strange elements of the trial that shocked the nation between July 1970 and January 1971. Here are some of the others.
Manson’s followers sat outside the courthouse with Xs carved into their foreheads.
When Manson entered the court on the first day of the murder trial, several people gasped when they saw he had carved a bloody X into his forehead. Outside, his followers passed around a rambling, typewritten statement in which Manson declared, “I have X’d myself from your world.” When the trial resumed on Monday, defendants Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten showed up with X’s carved on their foreheads, too.
Soon, almost all of the Manson Family members had X-shaped scars on their foreheads. During the trial, some of the female members who hadn’t been arrested sat outside the courthouse with their scars to show their devotion to Manson, says Lis W. Wiehl, a former federal prosecutor and author of Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter.
“There was a little corner outside the courthouse…,” Wiehl says. “And they would sit down there all day during the trial, and just kind of look up at where he was being tried.” Inside the court, a woman who had escaped the cult testified about the spell those women were under.
A former cult member recounted a chilling picture of life at Manson’s ranch.
The key witness at the Tate murder trial was Linda Kasabian, a 21-year-old who had moved to Spahn Ranch, where the Manson Family had taken up residence, to live with the cult in July 1969. She was outside Sharon Tate’s house on the night of the murders there, and in the car with Manson near the LaBianca’s house the next day when he told his followers to kill the residents and then drove away. Soon after, she fled the ranch with her infant daughter.
At the murder trial, Kasabian testified about Manson’s control over the members of his cult. She said he kept mothers like Kasabian separate from their children. He also arranged sexual orgies between the members, deciding when they would take place, who would participate and what roles participants would play. Kasabian also described how she and other followers thought Manson was the Messiah, which is how he described himself.
Kasabian said the cult members frequently took drugs, and the defense team tried to use her admission that she had taken LSD around 50 times to argue she was mentally incapable of testifying. This didn’t work, and Kasabian’s testimony helped prove prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s argument that, although Manson wasn’t present for the Tate and LaBianca murders, he was responsible for orchestrating them. It also provoked extreme reactions from Manson, his followers and the defense lawyers.
The judge threw three of the defense’s lawyers in jail for contempt.
Before Kasabian had even entered the courtroom to testify, Manson Family member Sandra Good screamed, “You’ll kill us all” at her in a corridor. While Kasabian spoke on the witness stand, Manson threatened her by drawing a finger across his throat and also loudly proclaiming she had “already told three lies.” Manson’s lawyer, Irving Kanarek, also repeatedly objected to her testimony and interrupted it so many times that Superior Court Judge Charles Older threw him in jail for contempt on July 29.
Kanarek wasn’t the only defense lawyer jailed that night. After the judge had already told Kanarek he would spend the night behind bars, Leslie Van Houten’s lawyer, Ronald Hughes, made a remark to prosecutor Bugliosi—”That is a lot of s***”—that prompted the judge to jail him for contempt as well. A little later, Susan Atkins’ lawyer Daye Shinn received a three-night jail sentence when he admitted he’d brought confiscated pages of The Los Angeles Times to the counsel table, putting the sequestered jury in danger of seeing media coverage of the trial—which they did, thanks to Manson.
Manson tries to cause a mistrial by holding up a newspaper headline.
On August 3, President Richard Nixon made the mistake of bringing up Charles Manson during a press briefing, saying, “Here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders.” Kanarek immediately moved for a mistrial because he said the jury was in danger of being biased by the president’s statement. After the judge denied the request, Manson took things into his own hands with a front page of The Los Angeles Times that read “Manson Guilty, Nixon Declares.”
“Manson was great at using the media,” Wiehl says. The day Shinn brought that paper over to the table, “Manson stood up and raised it in front of the jury, this tabloid-sized headline in violation of the judge’s gag order.” (Shinn claimed he had only meant to bring the sports pages, and had brought the front page by accident.)
Afterward, all jury members stated under oath that the headline had not influenced them and that when they determined their verdict, they would only consider evidence they learned about in court. In his book Helter Skelter, prosecutor Bugliosi quoted a few of the jurors’ reactions to the incident: “I think if the president declared that, it was pretty stupid of him”; “No one does my thinking for me”; “I didn’t vote for Nixon in the first place.”
One witness almost died from an LSD-laced hamburger.
Manson still had a powerful hold over his followers from inside prison, and they were determined to prevent witnesses from testifying. One witness, a ranch hand at Spahn named Juan Flynn, was so scared of them that he confessed to illegally drinking beer at a national park so he could go to jail and prevent the cult members from reaching him.
The cult also targeted a 17-year-old former Manson Family member named Barbara Hoyt. In September, the cult offered to take her to Hawaii if she agreed not to take the stand. Hoyt accepted and flew to Honolulu with one of them, who then gave her a hamburger containing a lethal dose of LSD. A social worker found Hoyt on the street and rushed her to a hospital, where she asked authorities to contact Bugliosi.
“She survived, but that was an attempt to get rid of a cooperating witness,” Wiehl says. Yet instead of stopping her testimony, the Manson Family’s attempt to kill Hoyt only made her more willing to testify against them. Hoyt backed up Kasabian’s testimony and helped the prosecution link Manson to the murders.
One lawyer went missing and was later found dead.
One of the strangest thing about the trial was the disappearance of Leslie Van Houten’s lawyer, Ronald Hughes. He was found dead four months later, after the trial ended.
The court first realized something was off when Hughes didn’t show up in court on November 30. Soon, the court realized he was missing and that he was last seen camping at Sespe Hot Springs. After a month of searching, people began to think he was dead. On March 1971, authorities confirmed this when they found his body at the springs.
Hughes’ cause of death was “undetermined,” but there has been plenty of speculation that the Manson Family was involved. Cult member Sandra Good later told Laurence Merrick, who filmed a documentary about the Manson Family, that the cult had killed “35 to 40 people” and that “Hughes was the first of the retaliation murders.” Likely, we will never know exactly what happened to him.