The Col mentioned this letter a little over a month or so ago. It manages to highlight what happened, and just how wrong everything is with our world.
December 18, 2005
Dear loved ones and friends,
It makes my heart ache to have to tell you that I will be unable to join you in the free world until. . . well maybe until hell freezes over, from the looks of things. My fifteenth parole hearing since I became eligible for parole in August of 1976 has ended in a denial of parole for an additional three years.
I went into the hearing energized and upbeat, but without expectations, focused on communicating effectively while remaining detached from the outcome. Still, I could not help feeling somewhat hopeful. After all, Carolyn Hagin, my attorney, had prepared an impeccable presentation for the hearing. It incorporated numerous letters from family and friends, all eloquent and heartfelt in their expressions of support for my release, attesting to my character, abilities, and contributions to the community. Along with these were included solid parole plans with secure residence, offers of employment and a family support network, an excellent work and education history, an extremely positive psychological evaluation summery, etc. It is doubtful the Board has ever seen a presentation more strongly indicative and supportive of an individual’s suitability for release on parole. Despite my resolve to remain detached for the outcome, throughout the hearing, I could not help feeling optimistic.
So when the decision was rendered, and I realized that I will be 61 years old and have been in prison for 40 years when – as presently scheduled – my suitability for parole will next be considered, I was stunned. It knocked the wind out of me.
Ironically, the hearing actually went very well, for the most part. It was conducted in as professional a manner as the physical circumstances would allow.
The hearing panel was cooperative in making a factually accurate, hysteria-free summery of the events that brought me to prison. I was allowed to speak freely and honestly and at length about what I think and feel about these experiences, and what I’ve learned from them. Commissioner Farmer, the chair, was particularly encouraging and receptive in this process. The Deputy Commissioner, Ms. Grammer-April, was also professional, asking questions and listening to the answers in a manner that was helpful. Like the last several hearings, no reporters from the press were present in the hearing room to make everyone feel self-conscious. More than any previous hearing, it seemed to me there was an air of fairness to the proceedings.
Respectful attention was given to each letter of support individually and (over the L.A. prosecutor’s objections) I was allowed to comment on the nature and scope of each relationship. A good deal of attention was also given to some of the extraordinary endeavors and activities I’ve been involved in, and their far-reaching benefits.
Things got a bit dicey when the prosecutor from Los Angeles insinuated a recent “fearful” letter and attached computer printout from my confidential file into the hearing process. (That the prosecutor was privy to these items raises some suspicion that he was somehow involved in how they came to be placed in the confidential file, because by the rules neither an inmate’s attorney or the representative from the D.A.’s office is permitted to view the contents of this file without court order.
The panel had stated early in the hearing that no confidential information would be relied upon; later, I heard the prosecutor tell the panel to take a second look at the confidential documents.
The letter was barely mentioned and seemed of little concern. The attached printout obviously raised some eyebrows, however. I could not see it because my hearings are conducted over telephone between Oregon and California, and I had no “eyes” in the hearing room because my attorney could not be present (Carolyn will be giving birth to her second child in mid-January, and is on maternity leave from her practice). I was able to glean from the comments made that the printout consisted of a portion of a web page on the Clair Obscur Gallery website, where some of my artwork has been on display. Of the 36 pieces of my art on display there, only the few erotic pieces I did many years ago were included on the printout, apparently. Later I would learn that it also included some mention of Manson, but I’m still not certain in what context his name appeared in the printout.
There were some questions about my having done erotic art. I answered them candidly and honestly, explaining that they are part of a much larger body of work that I have produced over these many years. I explained that most of the more overtly erotic pieces depicted on the printout (the titles were mentioned) were created for Barbara, originally intended as a private expression of intimacy between the two of us, and that we decided to display them within the context of the larger body of work as a retrospective. This seemed to satisfy the hearing panel, more or less, but I sensed there was some sort of complication. Due largely to the archaic mechanism by which we were forced to communicate I was unable to put my finger on what it was until it was too late. I was literally blind-sided.
Throughout the hearing, up to this point the specter of the Charles Manson persona loomed large, like the proverbial elephant in the room that everyone is trying to avoid talking about. I spoke frankly about my relationship with him when the topic came up. The panel seemed to appreciate my candor and to respect my responses. I have reached the point in my life where it has become natural to simply tell it like it is. Perhaps this is why there had been relatively little focus on my former association with Manson, and refreshingly more attention on what has occurred since.
This was clearly frustrating to the prosecutor from L.A., who was chomping at the bit to have his say. I surmise that when the hearing was first begun last June and he had had an opportunity to review a copy of our presentation, all the letters of support, etc., he realized that his case was weak. Unlike his relatively low-key presentation last hearing, he came armed for bear when the hearing was resumed last week.
When the prosecutor’s turn came, he immediately launched into a vitriolic attack on my character. It consisted essentially of a scattergun regurgitation of Helter Skelter misinformation, in addition to some bits that I had never heard before and seemed to be drawn from thin air, laced with insinuation and innuendo. Naturally, there was a lot of Manson this and Manson that – intended, of course, to generate a cloud of suspicion and mistrust and prejudice deriving from the Manson hysteria. This is a typical tactic, in my experience, and is usually pretty effective. It serves notice of the potential, if parole is granted, for political fallout of a particularly unpleasant sort.
In my summation, which immediately followed, I was able to cut through the bullshit and clear the air to a considerable degree. But enough damage had been done to sabotage the hearing. Assuming the elephant in the room had not posed too great of an obstacle, and if the hearing panel had seriously been considering granting parole, the hope that it would was dashed at that point. I had been re-prosecuted yet again, painted with the ugly brush so that I would be barely recognizable even to myself: an implied threat to the Board that “the people of California” could get nasty if it dares to release me.
After a forty-minute recess for deliberation, the hearing was resumed. In rendering the decision finding me unsuitable for parole, Commissioner Farmer sited, as usual, the severity of the crime. The essential facts of the case will never change. I killed a man for reasons that seem, and were, trivial. I forfeited any say in how much punishment is enough, so I must accept, along with all of the other consequences for my actions, the repeated recitation of what I did. I have no one to blame for the choices I’ve made, and their consequences, but myself.
Then came the part informing me that the panel had determined that an additional period of three years was needed to evaluate my readiness for parole. He stated that it would be unreasonable to assume that sufficient change could occur in less time than that.
At this point Commissioner Farmer broke with formality and explained his reasons for this decision. I was impressed by his candor. Even though what he was telling me was devastating, I was appreciative of his willingness to be up front and open in telling me his reasoning for determining that 36 years of imprisonment was not enough. This was a first.
The hinge pin was the computer printout. I thought that maybe the erotic art was going to be a sticking point, but I was wrong about that. Commissioner Farmer carefully stated that he was not a prude, that while some people might consider explicit adult fantasy art to be pornography (as the prosecutor had suggested), he did not. It was not the nature of the art that bothered him . . .
No, what disturbed the hearing panel, he said, is that as late as 2005, this very year, I had contracted with an agent or gallery owner to allow my artwork to be displayed and marketed to the public in a manner that exploited the notoriety of my crime and the Manson connection to promote sales of my art and music (the Dreamways CD). This, he said, demonstrated a “serious lapse of judgment” that required a longer period of confinement so that there would be adequate time to allow the Board to evaluate my “ability to maintain a distance from Manson” in the public eye, and refrain from involvement with such displays in the future. He mentioned – again, with surprising candor – that he was concerned about possible repercussions from the governor and the public if he were to vote to parole me under the present circumstances.
I wanted to scream STOPP!!!!!!! I wanted to have an opportunity to tell him that he had made a mistake, to explain that the conclusion he had arrived at was based on evidence that was faulty due to omission of the original context, that was “cooked” to mislead. I wanted an opportunity to present evidence of my own to demonstrate that there had been no attempt to capitalize on the Manson connection or my crime as a strategy for promoting the Dreamways series art show, and any other work I have created.
I have been adamant in my communications with everyone who has assisted me in publishing my work that it be allowed to succeed or fail on its own merits. I have, in all cases, asked them to avoid making public references to the criminal part of my past except as necessary to meet the most basic requirements of ethical disclosure (it would be criminal of me to not be honest and divulge that this element exists). For the gallery show of my art I authorized the use of an “artist bio” that summarizes my life from birth to the present, and includes a very brief passing mention of Manson amid comments on the most essential circumstances of my imprisonment these many years; included with the intention of minimally meeting the basic requirements of ethical disclosure. I will provide each of you with a copy of this brief bio. Unless there is some other mention of Manson in relation to me on the gallery’s website that I am unaware of, it was this document that the hearing panel based their decision to find me unsuitable for parole.
Anyway, I had to resist the temptation to scream out during the recitation of the hearing decision and beg for an opportunity to clarify matters before the door was slammed in my face. By then it was too late. Once the parole hearing had gone into recess for deliberations, the opportunity to present additional information or speak for myself had passed. Mr. Farmer seemed pained by the decision he had been forced to arrive at. I waited for him to finish talking out of politeness, then hung up the phone.
So there you have it: the whole story, of the best and worst parole hearing I’ve ever had.
Where to from here?
I have spoken with Carolyn, and we have discussed all of this. We will be taking the outcome of the hearing on appeal in superior court as soon as the decision becomes final, which will occur at around the time that Carolyn returns to work from maternity leave, about 120 days from now.
There are more than adequate grounds for a successful appeal. There are at least several glaring errors, both substantive and technical. Not least of which is that the document central to my being denied parole, the computer printout from the website, was the one document that I was not provided a copy of prior to the hearing. There was no way that I could have reviewed the information in advance of the hearing and prepared an appropriate answer to it. And in fact I could not even see the document while the hearing was taking place, making it virtually impossible to have formed an adequate response on the fly.
This violates one of the Board of Prison Terms’ most fundamental rules: that the prisoner be provided with copies of all documentation that the hearing panel will be relying on far enough in advance of the hearing (10-30 days is typical) to allow for reasonable preparation. That this basic requirement was not met is inexcusable.
Ordinarily the goal of an appeal is to get a new hearing. It makes more sense in this case to reopen the hearing that just took place. I want to keep the record established in this hearing intact and add to it my answer to the information that was insinuated into the hearing process midway. I may (if Carolyn agrees) write a letter to Commissioner Farmer, gambling on the off chance that he will act to reopen the hearing on his own volition when I point out to him the nature and magnitude of the mistake that has been made in the handling of my hearing. The BPT is not known for revisiting its own decisions without being forced to by an order from the courts, but I figure it’s worth a shot.
The parole board has recently eliminated the direct administrative appeal process. This is a good thing, as it was nearly always a useless waste of time. Seeking remedy in court is now the only available recourse in most cases.
In order to pursue this course of action, Carolyn will need to be paid her reasonable fees for preparing the writ and making court appearances. I do not have adequate funds to cover these costs. I will state this plainly and without shame: You can count on me to stand my ground and do my part in the fight, but I need some help. If you are in a position to make a contribution to cover some of my attorney’s fees for what’s ahead, and you would like to help in this way, you may send funds to her in my behalf to the following address.
Carolyn M. Hagin, Attorney
Pier Five Law Offices
San Francisco, CA 94133
There is another way you can help me to meet this challenge, one that may well be even more important than helping me to get my case into court.
I am faced with a very serious dilemma, and I must soon make a decision that will undoubtedly determine the direction of my life from this point forward. Ultimately the course of action (or non-action) I choose will be my decision alone, but before I make that decision I would very much appreciate having the benefit of your venerable collective wisdom.
Before me are two paths, each very different in what they demand of me and all of the people closest to me, each with its own set of possible advantages and potential perils.
If I choose this path I would comply with the parole board’s recent recommendations to avoid any activity that may even remotely be construed as an attempt to promote my work, or myself or to profit by it, on the basis of criminal notoriety such as my long-ago association with Manson. Effectively this means that I would have to curtail all efforts to publish my work or publicly communicate directly with the world at large – to pull my music releases off the market, to stop showing and selling my art to the public, to decline interviews, to suspend any plans to publish my first book, to pull down the websites and cease my ongoing public dialogue. It means that I would have to hunker down, keep a low profile, maintain good prison behavior and work record, and make myself as invisible to the public as possible.
Among the possible benefits of choosing this route are that with the passage of time I may shake the “Manson cooties” enough for the L.A. district attorney’s office to lose interest in opposing my release. By demonstrating my willingness to comply with the parole board’s recommendations over a long enough period of time, they may reward me with my heart’s desire – to be with my beloved Barbara in the home she has made for us, enjoying the company of our children and grandchildren, and be generally engaged in life as a free man.
The potential pitfalls of this course of action (or rather, inaction) include the distinct possibility that the Manson specter will continue to morph unchecked into ever more bizarre mutations, and that, correspondingly, resistance from the D.A.’s office to releasing anyone associated with Manson will be insurmountable to me and to the parole board as well. There will be little to show for the years creatively and artistically wasted, sacrificed in the hope of a result for which there are no guarantees of any payoff, ever. And if I am released, may be just in time to gulp a few deep breaths of freedom from prison before I die.
This may seem an extreme response, but I see no way to avoid any potential risk with halfway measures. In practice, ironically, the Manson association has proven to be more of a liability than an asset when displaying and offering my work publicly. Still, there is bound to be someone who will adopt the position that my work could not possibly be of interest to anyone on its own legitimate value as art. No matter how conscientious I am (as I have been) in avoiding the appearance of exploiting some misbegotten notoriety as an expedient for marketing my work, there’s just no sure-fire way to avoid being perceived as pandering to people who are interested in that sort of thing. Perception, not fact – much less truth – defines what is real for most people.
The workaround of publishing under an assumed name is simply absurd. The style is distinctive and already known under my own name. And besides, it is conceivable that I could be held liable for fraud if I fail to disclose the true origins of the work that I publish.
So I’m stuck with what appears to be an either/or choice. As one who is an artist by nature, I’m sickened by the prospect that the price of my release from prison may be to stop expressing who I am for an extended period of time.
The alternative path would be to stay the course.
Years ago, when I consented to do the interview with Michael Moynihan for Seconds magazine, I made a covenant with myself in relation to the world. After many years of keeping a low public profile and getting much stagnation and status quo in my life as a result, I resolved to open myself to scrutiny to a degree that I had not previously permitted, to reveal not only those parts that I’m proud of, that it pleases me to show, but to shine a light into the dark shadows where the shameful parts are as well. Essentially, I resolved to allow myself to be an open book. I knew the risks, but it seemed to me that if I wanted the world to open to me, I had to be willing to be open to the world. Until last week I had no reason to doubt that my decision to begin this process had been the right one.
If I decide to continue along this path it would be to do so with even greater dedication and resolve, putting myself out there in the world through my art, my music, my writings, and being willing to answer, honestly and forthrightly, any reasonably intelligent question posed to me by individuals or responsible public media.
What purpose and meaning there may ever be to my being here may be to stand alone in the center of my own essential goodness and surrender to allowing the true nature of who I am to radiate outward in ever widening ripples. This is my one life, it is finite, and I become increasingly aware of this as I enter my sunset years. What meager gifts I have to offer are nothing if I don’t give them.
At the very least, following this path would permit me to add to a legacy of creative expression and some modest redeeming services. I want to be able to give this to my loved ones, to my sons and daughters and to my grandchildren, and to anyone who might benefit thereby. I want to be able to leave a legacy good enough, responsible enough, and substantive enough to relegate “Manson killer” to a mere footnote too insignificant to negatively impact their lives.
Part of this legacy would be the effects Between Love and Fear, my book-in-progress, could eventually have on the social conscience. If I’m a good storyteller, and fearless in the telling, this book might initiate the sort of self-searching community dialogue that could result in a more enlightened understanding. What I want, what I hope, is that this work will help to ignite a beam intense enough to bore right to the malignant heart of the imbroglio spawned by Helter Skelter, and sink its gratuitous influence on western culture (it would be a travesty to allow that literary monstrosity to remain the historic record of those tragic events).
Among the potential benefits is the possibility that these efforts could bring about a change of heart on the part of the parole board, that they might even forgive me for defying the recommendation Commissioner Farmer emphatically made to me at the conclusion of the hearing. Stranger things have happened.
Which points up Path B’s only obvious downside – running the risk of never being granted parole, and dying in prison. It is a frightening prospect. How do I justify choosing this path to Barbara, who has invested 24 years of her life in me (our anniversary is today, December 18th) in the hope that I would one day come home and be a full partner and companion to her? How can I justify this to you? Or for that matter, to myself? Choosing this path means being willing to give up all my dreams of being out there with you. It’s a heavy price to pay to fulfill some vague, unmeasurable higher purpose and to create some worldly legacy.
Path C, the middle path, appears to be a dead end and not a viable option. There’s really not a whole lot of leeway here. If we manage to get the hearing reopened this could change, but as things stand now it’s pretty much an all or nothing proposition. If I try to travel a middle path neither objective can be reached and I will likely find myself profoundly miserable and abandoned by everyone.
Like I said earlier, it’s a serious dilemma. I’m at a crossroads, and it’s hard to see the best way to go because I’m so close to it. I intend to approach my decision cautiously. Each of you is invested to some degree in all this, and therefore you each have a voice in the process of my making this decision. Please give me the benefit of your perspectives and insights.
To each of you, all of you, I remain grateful beyond words for your love and support. When the world and my future seem most bleak, it is this, your light, that sustains me.