‘Guilty’ Verdict Before Trial
Saturday, January 10th, 1970
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 10 – “The news media have already executed and buried me,” says Charles Manson, head of the hippie clan charged with responsibility for the gruesome murders of actress Sharon Tate and four of her friends.
Quite a number of lawyers here are agreeing with him. And if it can be proved that the avalanche of pre-trial publicity that has descended on Manson’s head has prejudiced his case, any convictions secured may well be overturned later.
Long before the Manson “family” was arrested the slayings had been rehashed to the last detail. The public knew precisely how the pregnant Miss Tate, wife of film director Roman Polanski, was slaughtered with four friends at her home in Benedict Canyon.
They all knew, too, about the monstrous killing of the middle-aged LaBiancas and death of musician Gary Hinman. Speculation had been lavish on the identity and motives of the assailants.
Three months later 22-year-old Susan Atkins turned State’s evidence and was arraigned with her companions of the Manson band.
A court order enjoined secrecy on the Grand Jury hearing, which was held behind closed doors. It came a little late.
Already Miss Atkins’ lawyers had released an account of the carnage as witnessed by their client. The clan, she said, acted under Manson’s spell.
Manson was given no chance to deny it. He would have his opportunity later on, said the judge.
But before the group was met for trial Miss Atkins’ attorneys moved again. World rights were sold — fetching tens of thousands of dollars — in a new 6000-word “confession” produced from tape-recordings of gaol conversation with the girl.
The article said the clan had killed Sharon Tate and her friends without even knowing who they were.
They learned the victims’ names the next day from a newscast. “It really helped to know that the people were so important. It blew my mind.”
Miss Atkins said that after her group had stabbed and shot the five strangers she soaked a towel in blood and smeared the word “pig” on a door.
Approaching the dead actress, she thought of Miss Tate’s baby, due to be born in weeks. “And I flashed. Wow. There’s a living being in there…”
After the killings the group drove off and threw their weapons and the black clothes they had worn into a ravine.
“Somebody commented that what had happened had served its purpose,” Miss Atkins said. “That was to instill fear in man himself — man, the Establishment. That’s what it was done for…and also to show the black man how to go about taking over the white man.”
The report was reproduced in newspapers across America, including the respected Los Angeles Times. Miss Atkins’ lawyer protested that this was done without his knowledge. He expected that the story would be sold only in foreign countries.
Since then the Los Angeles Times has accepted further chastisement in a series of letters from upset readers. These have been published in decent humility, without comment.
One from Los Angeles said: “The legality of the story relative to the recent judicial order is beside the point.
“That is irresponsible journalism and I would have expected better of you…This disingenuous portrayal of Miss Atkins as a simpleminded dupe is beyond everything.
“You call down upon yourself the wrath of the Agnews, who would threaten your rights to write the news your own way.”
Parents wrote objecting to having to keep the front page of their favorite newspaper from their children: “This is the stuff nightmares are made of.”
Mrs. Patti L. Drake protested that she for one, could never sit on a jury now in judgment on the Manson group — “and I don’t see how anyone else could with any honesty.”
Evidence for her viewpoint came in another letter, from Minnie G. Barlow, of Torrance: “I read the Atkins account.
“For once, just once, the courts should act with the greatest speed by quickly and efficiently placing each and every one of these murderers in the gas chamber. It’s time to protect the innocent, not the criminal.”
Art Seidenbaum, a Los Angeles Times columnist, now admits that as a result of journalistic enterprise it will be a “Herculean chore” to find an impartial jury.
Legal experts he consulted on the question said: “There’s no one in Los Angeles who doesn’t already think Manson and his people are guilty.”
After pointing out that the sale of a murderer’s story is often the only way a defense attorney can expect payment, and that the revenue from Miss Atkins’ memoirs will also help to support her infant daughter, Mr. Seidenbaum tries on the office sackcloth.
He says: “Maybe there ought to be an ethical agreement, if not a law, that lawyers will not become literary agents for clients accused of felonies, and another that journalists will not enter into actions for exclusive rights to the accused.
“I resent knowing that Miss Atkins (I confess to have read every bloody word of her account) is now big business because of being associated with hideous acts against humanity. A colleague of mine describes this as ‘vulturism’. Maybe he’s too kind.”
No such breast-beating has come, as yet, from the legal side of the fence. U.S. lawyers have long been trained to use every trick in the book to get a prisoner acquitted — or, if prosecuting, convicted.
There is little pretense of seeking abstract justice — “helping the court”, as British counsel call it.
In the Manson case the apparent purpose of Miss Atkins’ attorneys is to implant in the public mind that the cult leader was wholly responsible for anything she did.
If, nonetheless, Manson’s followers are found guilty, the press can be blamed at an appeal for “blowing up the story” so that there could not be a fair trial.
This argument was successful when the 1954 murder conviction of Dr. Sam Shepherd was overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds that pretrial publicity had produced a hostile jury.
By Charles Foley