How the Manson Family Murders Worked

Manson Murders Investigation and Trial

Charles Manson Manson murders
'I don't have any guilt,' said Charles Manson, who was 35 at the time of the photo, during a press conference in the courtroom where he was on trial for the killings of Sharon Tate and four others in 1969. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

The Manson murders presented the Los Angeles Police Department and sheriff's department with an incredibly complicated investigation: multiple crime scenes with multiple victims, plus multiple — and different — perpetrators at each scene. Initially, separate teams were investigating the Tate and LaBianca murders, and the idea that they were connected was ignored [source: Sanders]. If not for a bit of luck and the fact that the family had committed numerous other crimes, Manson and his followers may have evaded capture much longer.

A week after the murders, police raided Spahn Ranch, but not because of those heinous crimes. Manson and most of the family were arrested instead for stealing cars. But they were released on a technicality and fled to Death Valley. There, they were arrested again in multiple waves of police raids between Oct. 10 and 12, 1969. In addition to a series of thefts and generally terrorizing the locals, Manson had set fire to some heavy equipment owned by Death Valley National Monument rangers, which was what really brought the cops down on the family [source: Sanders].


Manson still wasn't connected to the Tate-LaBianca murders until family member Susan Atkins, who'd confessed to being connected to the Hinman murder, told other women in jail that she was involved in the two massacres. Suddenly, the evidence started to make more sense. All of the family members who'd participated in the murders were already in jail — it was simply a matter of building the case against them.

Atkins agreed to testify against Manson in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. Her grand jury testimony led to Manson being arraigned for the murders on Dec. 11, 1969. Atkins later recanted her testimony, and her deal was revoked by the prosecutors [source: Steffens and Staples]. Linda Kasabian, who hadn't entered any of the houses or committed any murders, was granted immunity and testified for the prosecution during the trial.

The Manson trial was chaotic and bizarre. Manson sought to represent himself, but was denied by Judge William Keene. After initially granting in propria persona rights to Manson, Judge Keene later forced Manson to work with a lawyer when he grew tired of Manson's theatrics and delay tactics, including a request that the prosecuting attorneys be imprisoned like he was to level the legal playing field [source: New York Times]. One of Manson's successful requests? He had Judge Keene replaced. Judge Charles Older oversaw the trial in his place.

Some of the more notable antics performed by Manson and his followers during the trial:

  • Crumpling up and throwing a copy of the Constitution into a garbage can
  • Turning his back on the judge
  • Cursing and shouting at the judge
  • Screaming at Kasabian to intimidate her
  • Carving an X into the middle of his forehead and claiming he was "Xed out of this world." (He later had it altered to become a swastika).
  • Family members arriving in court with their foreheads Xed the next day
  • Manson and his family members shaving their heads
  • Manson lunging toward Judge Older with a pencil while screaming threats
  • Manson speaking directly to spectators in the court
  • Manson's followers chanting, singing and mimicking his words

The most potentially disruptive action came not from Manson but from President Richard Nixon, who in August 1970, while the trial was underway, said, "Here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason." The declaration of guilt from the U.S. president could have influenced the jury and caused a mistrial, but the trial was allowed to continue [source: Loeb].

What was Manson's defense? And how did the trial end? We'll talk about that next.