The trial of Charles Manson and his tribe was from the beginning like a species of absurdist theater. The defense, in effect, was no defense at all. The lawyers representing Manson and the three women charged with the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders had no outside witnesses to help their case. The attorneys were afraid to put the women on the stand, believing that they would take full responsibility for the killings in order to absolve Manson.
Thus the defense rested without bringing any of the accused to the stand within the jurors' hearing; all four were found guilty of first-degree murder. Curiously, it was only last week, when the court reconvened for a jury trial to determine punishment,* that the defense began probing into the backgrounds of Manson's cultists, trying to suggest to the jury the psychological force that bound them to him.
At stake now is the question of life sentences v. the death penalty. The defense tried to sow some doubts in the minds of an essentially middle-class jury that could only find the Manson tribe and its life-style as incomprehensible as''its crimes. Women like Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Susan Atkins, the defense meant to show, could have been the jurors' own daughters.
Joseph Krenwinkel, 59, a stocky life insurance agent from Inglewood, described his daughter as a gentle child who loved animals, was once a Camp Fire Girl, sang in church choirs and attended summer Bible school. Then one day in 1967, said Krenwinkel, Pat abandoned her car in a parking lot, left two paychecks uncollected at the insurance office where she worked and, at age 19, disappeared with a man named Charlie Manson. A week later, from Seattle, she sent her father a letter: "For the very first time in my life, I have found inner contentment and inner peace. I love you very much. Take good care of yourself."
Jane Van Houten told much the same story about her daughter Leslie, a Camp Fire Girl, who took up the sousaphone in the sixth grade, was a homecoming princess at Monrovia High School. She even showed a picture of Leslie in her Halloween ballerina costume. "It was an outfit with a pink tutu," said Mrs. Van Houten, "and she got sick and couldn't go out on Halloween, so she wore it all the time she was in bed." In the summer of 1968, when she was 19, Leslie phoned her mother "to say that she was going to drop out and that I would not be hearing from her."
Riding the Wind. Next, the defense began calling upon other members of the Manson "family" to describe their lives with him. The object was to portray Manson as a benign figure. Lynette Alice Fromme, 22, a small, freckled girl nicknamed "Squeaky," said that she first met Manson when her father, an aeronautical engineer, kicked her out of the house in Redondo Beach. In Venice, Calif., Squeaky said, "I was sitting down crying and a man walked up and said, 'Your father kicked you out of the house, did he?' And that was Charlie." She joined his nomadic tribe. "We were riding on the wind," she said. "Charlie is a man, and we were all looking for a man who would be at our feet in his love but would not let us step on him. Charlie was a father who knew that it is good to make love, and makes love with love, but not with evil and guilt."