Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Defending Oneself in Court

Xed Out

In August 1969, Los Angeles, California, was shaken by a horrific murder spree that made international headlines. A group of killers had entered the home of Hollywood producer Roman Polanski and slaughtered five people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. A day later, they also murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. When one of their members, Susan Atkins, spilled the beans, the killers were arrested. As it turned out, the killers were Charles Manson's followers. They had mindlessly obeyed him when he ordered them to kill, and they showed no remorse. He was brought to court on a series of unrelated charges as the D.A.'s office prepared to prove his part in the Tate-LaBianca massacres. In Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi detailed how Manson won the right to represent himself.

On December 17, 1969, Manson went before Judge Keene to have his public defender dismissed. Keene was not convinced that Manson was competent to proceed in pro se. Manson argued that he could not give up his voice in the matter. "If I can't speak in my own defense," he said, "and converse freely in this courtroom, then it ties my hands behind my back, and if I have no voice, then there is no sense in having a defense." He felt that lawyers played with people and were only interested in publicity. He was certain that he was best suited to present his case.

Keene suggested that he confer with an experienced attorney who would not be representing him, and Manson accepted. Joseph Ball, a former president of the State Bar Association and former senior council to the Warren commission, was assigned to meet with Manson. Manson thought Ball knew the law but did not understand "free-love society" or the anti-establishment movement among young people. Ball then told the judge that Manson was an able and intelligent man with a ready understanding of many court procedures and points of law. He believed that Manson had a high IQ.

Charles Manson
Charles Manson

Judge Keene then asked Manson a number of questions to ensure that he knew what it meant to take on his own defense. He implored Manson not to do it several times, but Manson was adamant. "All my life I've been put into little slots, Your Honor," Manson told him. He wanted to go forward.

Keene indicated that he believed Manson was making a tragic mistake, but in the end, on Christmas Eve, he ruled that Manson was competent to defend himself. Yet despite Manson's insistence, he ruined his chances. In 1970, he appeared in court with an "X" cut into his forehead, claiming the court had no jurisdiction because he had "Xed myself from your world." Then he attempted to introduce numerous silly motions, such as having Bugliosi incarcerated. Because it was clear he was making a mockery of the proceedings and had also violated the gag order several times, the judge vacated his right to act as his own attorney. Manson reacted by saying that the court itself was on trial.

Keene appointed Charles Hollopeter, whom Manson rapidly fired after Hollopeter requested a psychiatric examination for his client. When a second request for proceeding pro se was denied, he picked up a copy of the Constitution and tossed it into a wastebasket. Then he requested representation by Ronald Hughes, who had never tried a case; the request was granted. Hughes wisely brought in co-counsel Irving Kanarek. Eight months later, Hughes disappeared and was later found dead. His murder was never solved, although circumstances pointed to the Manson Family.

Another defendant insulted the court as well, but for another reason.


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