How the Manson Family Murders Worked

Helter Skelter and the Verdict

Vincent Bugliosi Manson murders
A crowd of reporters surround Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi as he leaves the courtroom in the trial of Charles Manson. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Understanding Manson's strange defense forces us to delve into his Helter Skelter theory. Manson believed that there would be a race war between black and white people, and that both sides would basically destroy each other. Meanwhile, he and his followers would be hiding out in a bottomless pit somewhere in the desert — this is why they were roaming around Death Valley after the murders. After the war, they would emerge and Manson would literally rule the world.

There is ample evidence that this is what Manson believed and what he told his followers. The murders were meant to be blamed on black people, angering whites whose reprisals would in turn make the blacks rise up and start the war. The bloody writings at the crime scenes evoked anti-establishment messages sometimes used by groups such as the Black Panthers, referring to white people as pigs. Manson even tried to leave one of the victims' wallets in a black neighborhood [source: King].


Manson's earlier shooting of Bernard Crowe may have accelerated his Helter Skelter plans, because Manson thought Crowe might have been a Black Panther. And the presence of black guests going horseback riding at Spahn Ranch made him paranoid that the Panthers were planning an attack [source: Sanders].

The court testimonies of Manson followers like Tex Watson and Linda Kasabian strongly support the idea that Manson ordered the murders to help fulfill his Helter Skelter theory [sources: Felton and Dalton; Grow]. For example, here is an excerpt from Kasabian's testimony under questioning by Los Angeles County prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi:

Bugliosi: "Did he [Manson] tell you why he wanted you to throw the wallet out of the car?"

Kasabian: "Yeah, because he wanted black people to get it so that the police and the authorities would think that it was like an organized black group that did these killings" [source: People v. Watson, Cal.1970].

The main defense offered by Manson and his followers was two-fold (and not entirely clear, since it wasn't very organized or well-planned). First, they insisted that Manson never killed anyone, and that his followers had simply misinterpreted his talks about "the death of the ego," became overzealous and committed murders when he never intended them to literally kill people.

Second, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten were fully prepared to take the blame for the killings (and pin some of the blame on Watson). They also concocted a story related to the killing of Bobby Hinman and Bobby Beausoleil's arrest for it. The idea was that the women wanted to help their friend Beausoleil by committing murders similar to the one he was accused of. Since Beausoleil was in jail at the time of the Tate-LaBianca killings, this would prove he was innocent of the Hinman murder as well.

The defense lawyers, however, didn't even present a theory defending Manson in court because they knew the Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten were going to intentionally incriminate themselves. This infuriated Manson and his followers, although they were eventually allowed to make statements [source: Steffens and Staples].

In January 1971, Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten were each convicted of all counts of murder and conspiracy to commit murder (Watson was tried and convicted separately). Each received the death sentence, but their sentences were all commuted to life in prison in 1972 when California ended the death penalty. Atkins died in prison of brain cancer in 2009. Van Houten was recommended for parole in September 2017 by a two-member state panel. The ruling still must be approved by the California State Parole Board and Gov. Jerry Brown. Watson and Krenwinkel have all repeatedly been denied parole and remain in prison as of November 2017.

Manson was denied parole nine times and wasn't eligible again until April 2027. He died of natural causes at age 83 on Nov. 19, 2017.

But the trial — and even prison or his death — is certainly not the end of Manson's story.