It Looks Like A Long Loony Trial
Wednesday, July 1st, 1970
LOS ANGELES, Jul. 1 – One of the curiosities about covering a big trial in the U.S. is that the authorities spare no effort to help the press — even at the expense of forfeiting a fair trial for the accused.
Here at the trial of Charlie Manson and his three girls for seven murders, including that of actress Sharon Tate, the authorities are doing all possible to snake coverage convenient for the press.
Although the courtroom is tiny and seedy, efforts are being made to accommodate every news agency from as far away as Europe and Japan. Only 13 of 92 seats have been allotted to the public — most of the rest to newsmen.
As is usual in these splendid Hollywood courtroom extravaganzas, there’s a faint aura of hysteria and comedy which contrasts violently with the evidence that will ultimately be coming out at the trial.
Most everyone knows the gist of the evidence by now anyway, so in court it’ll mostly be a repeat performance.
So far the trial’s been like something out of Damn Runyon, with overtones of Dracula. You are constantly being amused and appalled simultaneously as they go through the rigors of trying to select a jury.
Nicknames among defendants are popular. Charlie Manson is known as “God,” while his barbaric little follower, Susan Atkins, who is something else, is known as Sadie Glutz.
Other members of the Manson “family” who are expected to testify are Gypsy, Squeeky, Snake, Yana the Witch, Sandy and Crebs. Sandy is the mother of a baby called “Elf” and someone else is the mommy of a baby called “Chosen.”
One of the members of the district attorney’s office is fondly called Gas Chamber because of his admirable record of sending people there.
An important official as far as the press is concerned is a wry-humored fellow called Harold Frediani. He is the criminal court co-ordinator, responsible for sealing the press. He’s really quite good, and his office on the eighth floor of the Hall of Justice, beside the Manson courtroom, is a perpetual scene of bustle and con games by newsmen trying to wangle an extra seat.
He has charts of seats and is like a glorified airline ground steward, seating customers here and there. Always affable, Mr. Frediani greets people with such phrases as “Come in, come in…the excitement in here is like a fire in a brothel,” only he uses another word for brothel.
He calls the long-limbed sheriffetes here “mothers superior” and warns out-of-town newsmen: “Be careful if you take one out—they’re all experts at judo and stuff.”
One is not quite sure whether they use judo in an offensive or defensive role, but I suppose before the 5-to-10 month trial is over some of the boys will know — especially those French correspondents.
So far most of the action has been outside rather than inside the courtroom. Because preliminary questioning of potential jurors is being done in the judge’s chambers, the press is vulnerable to antics of the hippie-type members of the Manson “family” who adorn the corridors.
They always have something significant to say about love and gentleness and the pastoral life they led at the Spahn ranch that was once Charlie’s domain.
And then there are the lawyers. Whenever they appear there are press conferences. It’s an embarrassment of riches when you get four defense lawyers and a couple of prosecutors competing for publicity.
Possibly this is unfair. The lawyers aren’t after publicity, maybe, but they want to be helpful. Lawyers are like that in California.
“Never heard a lawyer with so much to say— in or out of court,” said a Fleet St. man with considerable wonder in his voice.
Another newsman, a veteran of the world scene, remarked calmly that he felt Manson has about as much chance of being acquitted as Eichman had. No one disagreed.
There is something about big trials in the U.S. that emasculates dignity and decorum. Authorities shouldn’t be so co-operative with the press.
Even the relative restraint and courtesy of the Los Angeles court still results in an atmosphere that is somewhere between Disneyland and Dallas.
Perhaps indicative of what’s to come can be seen in the report of the woman who stared with frank hunger at Charlie Manson, and said when eventually she caught his eye, she felt something go “Zap.”
Because of the power of his gaze, she claimed, her arthritis suddenly vanished and she began proclaiming him a faith healer.
You don’t need much imagination to guess what the effect will be in kooky California if word gets around that Charlie Manson has occult healing powers to go with his other attractive qualities.
Yes, it looks to be a long, loony summer for those attending the Manson trial. As one of the prosecutors cracked in a weak moment: “By the time this is over the only sane people in court will be Manson and his harem.”
It’s not that wild a statement.
By PETER WORTHINGTON