The Wrongful Conviction of Charles Manson by Leonetti.pdf

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3/12/2016 2:40 PM

[Vol. 45

lawyer, caught up in the publicity of the original Los Angeles Case of the
Century, was cited multiple times for contempt of court for his
unprofessional and flamboyant behavior and presented little evidence in the
drifter’s defense. Out of the presence of the jury, the drifter proclaimed his
innocence and condemned society for persecuting him. He engaged in
disruptive behavior during his trial because he was psychotic and unmedicated. His apocalyptic obsessions were symptoms of his illness.
Several of the murderers later recanted their claims of his involvement,
explaining that they had fabricated the “mind control” story to escape the
death penalty.
The first, of course, is the story of the “Manson Family” murders. The
second story is, too.
The public image of Manson–a Svengali-like cult leader who
brainwashed a group of ordinary, middle-class young adults into
committing senseless murders–is deeply ingrained in the American
consciousness. That image was initially cultivated in his trial, a trial in
which the ratio of argument to supporting evidence was particularly high.
After the trial, apparently for the benefit of those that had been living in
caves, Vincent Bugliosi, one of Manson’s prosecutors, regurgitated the
official account of the murders in his best-selling trial memoir, Helter
Skelter. Other best-selling books, including first-hand accounts by several
of the murderers, followed. Today, Manson is more metaphor than mortal.
People do not just have a conception of Manson as the personification
of evil. They are attached to it. For several years, I have been trying to get
people to entertain the possibility that Manson might be innocent. We do,
after all, live in the era of DNA exonerations, so the idea of innocent people
serving life sentences is not inconceivable. Academics and practitioners, as
well as the public, however, are not just convinced of Manson’s guilt, they
are unwilling to reconsider it. The idea that Manson may be another
wrongfully convicted, poor, mentally ill defendant and the victim of that
deadly trifecta of questionable prosecutorial ethics, ineffective assistance of
counsel, and pretrial publicity is a nonstarter. It does not matter if the
audience was alive for the murders (I was not), from Southern California (I
am not), or even whether they know anything about Manson beyond his
public persona (most do not), people do not want to hear the theory or the
evidence in support of it.
If anything, the frenzied public condemnation of Manson has grown
over time, even as first-hand memories of the long, hot summer of 1969
fade. At the time of Manson’s trial, it was understood that the State of
California did not have a very good case. The State’s theory was not that
he committed the murders, but rather that he commanded the murderers,