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Discretion in the Criminal Justice System

      Discretion is arguably the most important tool in a criminal justice professional’s arsenal. Without it, we would be robots. Even the ...

The Lack of Discretion in the Sentencing of Charles Manson

Charles Manson is one of the most interesting cases of manipulation seen in current times. He was a powerful, albeit small, individual whose voice was a weapon and his influence, deadly. He serenaded his followers with an alternate reality that momentarily blinded them, leading to two of the most brutal slayings in modern American history. The people in his family were so enamored with Manson and his ideals, that they would live and die by his word. He was an erratic, master manipulator who used hallucinogenic drugs to cage the psyche of his followers and when he was fed up with his circumstances in life, ordered them to commit heinous, depraved acts of violence in the name of his ideas, but does this mean he was guilty of first degree murder or was he a victim of improper discretion used during his trial?

            Charles Manson was born in Ohio in 1934 to a sixteen-year-old prostitute. His father was a transient laborer who had naught to do with him during his childhood. Instead, his aunt and uncle took care of him in West Virginia after his mother went to prison for armed robbery. The home and environment were nice, aa sharp contrast to the type of life that he was living with his mother. From six years-old to eight years-old, Charles Manson had some semblance of a normal life, until his mother was released from prison.

            Upon her release, she took Manson back and subjected him back into her transient, bender-ridden lifestyle. They constantly moved across the mid-west where Manson learned how to commit petty crime at the early age of nine. He was shortly after sent to reform school, where his mother never visited him and after only ten months, escaped. He was caught again while trying to rob a store and a bicycle. He was then sent to a juvenile detention facility that he once again escaped from after cutting a lock and freeing over twenty other boys. This time he aimed bigger and stole a car but was once again caught while making his escape.

            During his trial, his mother made an appearance. When she stated that she would not be able to take him into her custody, however, he was left to the mercy of the judge. Luckily, he was a merciful judge and sent the young boy to Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. In a perfect world, the story of his redemption would begin here, but this was Charles Manson’s world, far from perfect or anything resembling.

            After just four days Manson escaped with another boy who had a close-by relative that they could go to. The relative was a World War II veteran and had ulterior motives for letting the boys stay with him. In exchange for his room and board, Manson and the other would commit and hand over the proceeds from armed robberies. During his final armed robbery for the man, he would be caught and sent to a reformatory school in Indiana. It was here where Manson would learn the cruelty of humanity and his bleak outlook on life would be reinforced and cemented.

            Manson has commented on his times at this school. His recollection is grim and filled with abuses both physically and sexually by the guards. He also had no commiseration from the other boys incarcerated with him. Due to his small stature of only 5’2”, the other boys would pick on him and when one incident led to him being gang raped, Manson struck back. He beat one of the attackers nearly to death and successfully blamed the assault on another of his attackers by placing the lead pipe he had used as a weapon under his bed.

            After escaping and being caught a total of eight times, he was sent to the National Training School for Boys in Washington, D.C. In this facility, Manson was not abused by the staff and was actually treated generally well. It was here that he finally received a psychiatric evaluation that diagnosed him as antisocial, aggressive, illiterate, and in serious need of psychological treatment. He was fifteen at the time. This is, again, where his redemption story could have begun, but things progressively got worse.

            He was transferred from here to the National Bridge Honor Camp in Petersburg, Virginia where he sodomized another inmate while holding a razor blade to his throat. This happened just three months before he was set to be paroled. Instead, he was transferred to the Federal Reformatory at Petersburg, Virginia where he was again violent a documented eight more times. He was again transferred to a higher security facility, but this one he would treat differently than the rest. At this new facility, he worked in the vehicle maintenance department and won awards for his accomplishments in math and reading. He was a model prisoner, and this caused his parole in 1954.

            Manson married at nineteen to Rosaline Jean Willis who he had his first child with while working low-income jobs and stealing cars as a way to get by. Eventually he moved his family to Los Angeles in one of the stolen cars from Ohio. Police were eventually able to track the car down and Manson was arrested once again and after receiving probation but failing to show up for a hearing, was sentenced to three years in prison in San Pedro, California. His wife subsequently left him, following his prison sentence, he became a pimp and we re-arrested just two years later in Laredo, Texas for an outstanding warrant in California. He would then serve a ten-year sentence for a forged check.

            During this sentence, Manson would learn to find an appreciation in music and the guitar, which he learned from a fellow inmate and notorious gangster. While doing this stint, he wrote between eighty and ninety songs, spending almost all of his free time playing guitar in his cell. He was released early in 1967 at thirty-two years-old. This is when he would find his way to San Francisco, move in with a UC Berkeley librarian’s assistant, and begin his family.

            Up until this point, Manson’s violent antics could have been a representation of the cruelty he had experienced throughout his early life. Charles Manson never had a strong parental unit. His mother has been described as self-absorbed, an alcoholic, and the furthest thing from a motherly figure that Manson could have been born to. According to some, she once attempted to sell him for a pitcher of beer at a bar but was tracked down later and Manson forced back upon her. Her indecisiveness to raise him caused permanent damage to his psyche and could have been the ultimate root for his adolescent delinquency. She could have left him in the nice home in West Virginia with his aunt and uncle upon her release from prison.

            Once he started having run-ins with the law, it was the discretion used by the criminal justice members that he came into contact with that would slowly drive the disdain for humanity deep into his heart. At almost every turn, he was seen as a criminal who needed to be punished, but in retrospect, it was more of a street-child just trying to get by. These were not violent crimes at first. These were crimes out of the necessity to live. These are not crimes to punish, especially of a child, but rather, a glimpse into a larger picture of the help he needed. Everything changed when he went to the Indiana School for Boys. Charles Manson, just fourteen at the time, had massive amounts of violence enacted against him, and this is where he, himself became violent.

            Once in San Francisco, Manson continued to build his family and honed himself as a spiritual guru. He used hallucinogens, mind control techniques, and amphetamines to indoctrinate his followers. This went on until Manson grew tired of Sa Francisco and moved his family to Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles. This would be where he starts to recruit male members, and trapped the world-renowned Beach Boys’ Drummer, Dennis Wilson, under his spell as well.

            Dennis Wilson like women and drugs, which is something Manson could supply in droves. The family essentially moved into Wilson’s mansion where drug fueled orgies were commonplace. Manson thought that this would lead him to the fame of a folk-rock career that he desperately desired, but when Wilson’s manager became weary of the group and brought Wilson out of the trance, Manson’s dreams were crushed. Unfortunately, Manson would not take this lying down and began to have a disgust for the very prestigious people he was previously trying to brush shoulders with.

On August 8th, 1969, eighteen-year-old Steven Parent was stabbed with a knife and shot four times in the chest. Jay Sebring was shot and stabbed seven times. Voyteg Frykowski was stabbed multiple times in the legs and torso, had his head smashed in by blunt force, and was finally shot twice. Abigail Folger made it to the outside yard where she was tackled by Patricia Krenwikel and stabbed to death. Sharon Tate and her eight-month-old unborn child were both stabbed until dead. Manson choreographed these murders but did not partake. The following night Manson did partake but left before the actual slayings took place. Tate and Rosemary LaBianca were tied up and stabbed to death by “Tex” Watson with a chrome-plated bayonet.

This can be argued to show that Manson probably wasn’t inherently violent. He seemed to go through a great deal to carefully distance himself from the murders. Seeing as how the only other times in his life he had been proven to be violent were in incarceration, Manson most-likely did not want to be the person committing the murders. He also could have felt that it was beneath him, seeing as how he had thugs to carry out his bidding for him. Either way, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1971.

Discretion was an integral part of the Manson family trials and may have been key to finding the group guilty. There was no physical evidence that could be tied directly to Manson, and the police handling of the .22 caliber pistol used in the slayings would sit in the evidence room, not believed by police to be the murder weapon until four months after the killings. The only thing that did directly tie Manson to the killings was testimony by Linda Darlene Kasabian, without actually being present, everything she stated could have been here-say.

The police needed to make an arrest because of the high-profile nature of the case and when the Manson family came into their sights for other reasons, they honed in. Susan Atkins then bragged to her cellmate about murdering the victims, and after a member of a motorcycle gang implicated Charles Manson in the killings, the police made the arrest.  Unfortunately, this wouldn’t normally be enough to make an arrest, but because of the high stakes and the pressure on the department, the family was taken in.

The trial did not have much evidence to use, and nothing tying Manson himself to the crimes except for the testimony of the also accused. The police destroyed or accidently covered up evidence at the scene that could have been key in the trial. The blood at the scene was trampled through and brought in and out of the house. A pair of glasses had been kicked under a chair. A possible fingerprint on the gate had been pressed over by an officer on the scene, and the blood sampling wasn’t done in a correct and efficient manner. There was also a suspiciously similar murder that took place prior.

When Gary Hinman was killed in his Malibu home, the words “political piggy” were written in blood, just like the word “pig” at the Tate crime scene. When given this information and asked if they were connected, Sergeant Jess Buckles, An LAPD detective assigned to the case, said, "Naw, we know what's behind these murders. They're part of a big dope transaction." (Insider News) Whether pawned off as Nixon era war on drugs theology or just complacency, this should not have been ignored.

            Speaking of Richard Nixon, the judge in this case failed in his discretionary duties as well. Once the president of the United States, the highest elected office in the land, states on public television that you’re guilty of the crimes you’ve been accused of, your trial should immediately be called as a mistrial and a new jury selected, however, due to the infamy of the crime, selecting a new jury that had not heard of the crime could have been extremely hard to find.

            Without any physical evidence tying Charles Manson to the murders, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. If discretion was used improperly from the initial arrest, and no evidence existed directly implicating Manson, how did our system sentence him to die? This case, starting with the initial investigation of the crime scene, was too high profile for our system to understand how to act discreetly and accordingly. In fact, our system did not act with proper discretion throughout Charles Manson’s entire life, and it’s only fitting it would attempt to be his end as well.


Works Cited

Duwe, M. (2019, October 28). LA police almost let Charles Manson get away with multiple murders. Here's how. Retrieved from Insider News:

Sawyer, D. (Director). (1993). Chrles Manson: Journey Into Hell [Motion Picture].

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