Is it that you recall being in harmony
Is there something in you that yearns to see
Or do you remember a time
When you were free
Did you ever wonder what you’re living for
Is there anything of which you are sure
Have you asked yourself
Is there more
A moment’s moment can be an eternity
And all the while time has its flow
So how many lifetimes can you live in infinity
It’s all there for us to know…
- song by Paul Watkins, summer of 1970
The book Helter-Skelter chronicles events that took place during the Tate-La Bianca trials – the saga of a murder case which lasted longer, received more publicity, and cost more than any other in American history. For me to repeat what was written there would be wasted effort. I can only conclude my own story which is a part of that saga, a single thread in a legal tapestry which will not be forgotten.
I saw Charles Manson for the last time in a courtroom in the L.A. Hall of Justice in the fall of 1972. I saw him face to face, not twenty feet away, across an odyssey of time and circumstances that in retrospect seems totally unbelievable. What happened that day in the midst of my testimony, when Charlie leaped to his feet and screamed, “Liar!” must remain indelible to all those who bore witness to it. For me it was a catharsis, a moment of utter unwavering certainty, as inevitable as the dawning of a new day. Yet, by the time it happened, I was prepared. By then I had testified not only in the Tate-La Bianca trials and the grand jury proceedings but also in Tex Watson’s trial, and the Shea-Hinman trials. I had spent weeks on the witness stand and had been asked the same questions time and time again. I had been examined and cross examined by some of the best defense attorneys in
From the beginning the courtroom had served as a theater for some of Manson’s best performances. Even those who most wanted his blood could not help but be struck by his spirited charisma. Early in the Tate-La Bianca proceedings, Joseph Ball, the former president of the state bar association, and former senior counsel to the Warren Commission, found Charlie to be “an able, intelligent young man, quiet-spoken and mild-mannered.” He remarked, further, that Charlie had “a ready understanding of the law” and “a fine brain.” Ball said, too, that Charlie was “not resentful against society… he feels if he goes to trial and he is able to permit jurors and the court to hear him and see him, they will realize he is not the kind of man who would perpetrate horrible crimes.”
Following Ball’s remarks, the then presiding judge, William Keene, begged Charlie to reconsider his decision to defend himself. But Charlie wouldn’t budge.
“For all of my life,” he said, “as long as I can remember, I’ve taken your advice. Your faces have changed, but it’s the same court, the same structure. All my life I’ve been put in little slots, your Honor, and I went along with it. I have no alternative but to fight you have any way I know how, because you and the district attorney and all the attorneys I have met are on the same side and the newspapers are on the same side and it’s all pointed against me, personally. No, I haven’t changed my mind.”
But Charlie didn’t defend himself long. His courtroom antics and violation of procedure, much of which was done to play up to the press, forced the judge to appoint an attorney, Charles Hollopeter, with the stipulation that Charlie could enlist another attorney if he so desired. Along the way, Charlie would make many substitutions, selecting, at last, Irving Kanarek.
From December 1969 until July 1970, when the Tate-La Bianca trials finally got under way, Charlie called most of the shots, both in and out of the courtroom. And in the beginning, when he had the support of the free press and radicals like Jerry Rubin, he put on a real show. Together with the girls who came to court daily and kept vigil an the sidewalks of
But neither Charlie nor the girls gave up, and we were continually threatened. I was entering the courtroom one morning when Squeaky approached me just outside the doorway of the Hall of Justice. It was in September, around the time I was to begin my testimony.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m just telling the truth… it’s time to tell the truth.”
“Are you still my brother?”
“Yeah… I’m your brother.”
“Listen to your love.”
“That’s what I’m doing,
“There’s no such thing as death,” she muttered. “It’s all love.”
“Here, Lynn.” I took a five-carat emerald ring off my little finger and handed it to her. Then I walked into the courtroom.
Nearly three years later to the day (September 5, 1975), in Sacramento, California’s “city of justice,” Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme attempted to assassinate the president of the United States.
My testimony, together with that of Brooks and Juan, not only substantiated the murder charges against Charlie – he had admitted killing Shorty to each of us separately – but provided corroboration of Helter-Skelter (the race war) as a motive. We had all experienced Charlie’s programming techniques and were thus able to convey at least in part how Charlie’s devices operated. On cross-examination the defense continually sought to invalidate my testimony by suggesting that drugs had destroyed my mind.
During the Bruce Davis trial (Shea-Hinman), after I had testified to hearing Bruce describe the murder of Shorty Shea, the defense attorney approached the bench.
“Your Honor, it is my intention to show that this witness has, over a period of time involved in his testimony, been engaged almost continually in the taking of drugs. That he has acknowledged on examination and cross-examination in prior cases that he has taken LSD… and that as a result his mind has been bent.”
Hours and hours were spent grilling us on drugs, everything from acid to marijuana. The numerous transcripts of trial testimony read very much alike. From the Shea-Hinman trial, February 1972:
Q. “And now, Mr. Watkins, how about marijuana… what are the effects on you of marijuana?”
A. “On my?”
Q. “On you, sir.”
A. “You get high, or what I would hall high. Kind of happy, laughing, feel free, feel good.”
Q. “Is this after just one, or does it take several?”
A. “It depends on how strong it is, and how strong you are; who you are with, and what you are doing; and it depends on a lot of things.”
Q. “All right. How about hashish?”
A. “It has the same effect, only much stronger.”
Q. “Much faster?”
A. “Much faster.”
Q. “And when you say much stronger, does it affect your balance?”
A. “Hmmm. It depends on the type of hashish you’re smoking. I never has it affect my balance, like I suppose you’re likening it to being drunk, where you are stumbling around. It’s not like that, no.”
Q. “Does it affect your sense of time?”
A. “Inasmuch as though you may be having a good time, and time would seem to fly.”
Q. “Does it affect your sense of vision?”
A. “Not really.”
Q. “It doesn’t enhance or detract from your ability to see; is that right?”
A. “Well, I may have had it enhance my ability to see at times and detract at other times.”
Q. “Does it cause you to have any sort of visions or hallucinations at all?”
Q. “Does it cause sounds to be more… cause you to be more keenly aware of sounds and sights?”
A. “You’re still talking about marijuana and hashish, right?”
A. “Yeah. On certain occasions it would… you would be more aware of sounds and sights.”
Q. “Well other than that, does it do anything for you?”
A. “Other than what?”
Q. “Those things we’ve named.”
A. “Well, I don’t know how deep you want to get into it. We could leave it right there; if it’s okay with you, it’s okay with me.”
When attempts to discredit me failed along those lines, the defense tried other means. At one point during the same trial, the defense lawyer approached the bench to tell the judge he could prove that I was working with the police and that therefore my testimony was prejudicial and biased. Out of earshot of the jury he explained to the judge what I clearly overheard:
“I will offer proof that between October and December – and specifically in mid-December of 1969 – this particular witness had several conversations with officer Dave Steuber and other officers of the highway patrol and the sheriff’s department in Inyo County; that thereafter, and as a part of the plan of the prosecution, he returned to the Manson Family, to the Spahn Ranch, specifically sent there to be a spy; that he saw Charles Manson in January approximately eight times at the jail – which visits are recorded – and that I contend that this was done specifically to get information, to pass along to the sheriff; that therefore his testimony is biased and prejudiced, because of his connections with the prosecution, based on this background.”
Though none of these assertions were true, I felt at times as though I were on trial.
Q. “Well, you did visit Charlie at least seven or eight times in January of 1970, in jail; is that correct.”
A. “At least.”
Q. “All right. And these were just friendly visits, to pass the time of day, to help poor old Charlie while away the hours -?”
The state’s attorney at the time, Manzella, objected, and the objection was sustained.
Q. “Well, were these just friendly visits to help your friend, who was there in great trouble?”
A. “Some –.”
Manzella objected and the court sustained it.
Q. “All right, sir,” Denny went on. “ These were visits in order for you to try and pump Charlie Manson for the prosecution; isn’t that right?”
A. “No, that isn’t right.”
Often I felt totally exasperated. I wanted to tear through the mumbo-jumbo of the courtroom decorum; I wanted to explain to the court, to the judge, the jury, and everyone present, the real truth – the torment, the depth of feeling, the reality of my experience, which seemed inaccessible and paradoxically out of place in what has been called the halls of justice. But I had learned the courtroom games well, and focusing my energy on the truth enabled me to outlast the most determined defense attorneys. The mind games played in a courtroom are complex, and it takes a good deal of awareness to stay on top of them. It is not simply a matter of telling the truth, since everything you say is controlled by the questions, and many of the questions are asked obliquely so that the intent of the lawyers is not always clear. Plus, your consciousness must encompass not only the attorneys on both sides but also the jury and the judge.
But it was neither the judge nor the jury that made testifying traumatic; it was facing the defendants. It’s hard to describe the multitude of feelings I had when taking the stand as a witness for the prosecution – facing Charlie, Sadie, Leslie, and Katie in the courtroom eye to eye. Facing girls who had once had beauty in their hearts, girls I knew better than any jury would ever know – girls I had lived with, traveled with, made love with, sung with. All of them, on trial for murder. And the man who had taught me a great deal about music and love and had asked me to submit to that love; a man I had once seen as the embodiment of life but who had become its opposite, but who nevertheless continued to project incredible force and presence even late in the Tate-La Bianca proceedings, after Brooks and I had testified.
Clean-shaven, well-groomed, and articulate, he made a great spectacle, prancing confidently around the courtroom. According to Charlie it was not he who was on trial but the system which brought him there. And in part, he was right. Near the end of the Tate-La Bianca trial, when it was clear that the evidence against him was insurmountable, he took the stand to testify in his own behalf. Even Bugliosi, who had fought so hard to ensure the death penalty, admitted to the hypnotic effect of Manson’s words. And Bugliosi had not met Charles Manson at eighteen before the murders, during the Summer of Love, when the youth of America were riding the crest of an awakening consciousness and were high on life and LSD. But I had. And I had come a long way since then, far enough, at least, to see through Charlie’s impassioned soliloquy, shot through with truths and half-truths and the subtle nuances of his madness. Yet, even when Charlie spoke, and he spoke for more than an hour, what he said was not only for the benefit of the court but to manipulate the other defendants – his Family, still programmed to loyalty to the bitter end, ready to die for a man who could have just as easily cut their throats.
Charlie’s testimony began slowly, but as he spoke, his voice became clear and resonant; if Charles Manson was anything, he was a performer. “Most of the people at the ranch that you call the Family were just people you didn’t want, people that were alongside the road, that their parents had kicked out, that did not want to go to Juvenile Hall. So I did the best I could and took them up on my garbage dump and I told them this: that in love there is no wrong…
“I told them that anything they do for their brothers and sisters is good if they do it with a good thought…
“I was working at cleaning up my house, something that Nixon should have been doing. He should have been on the side of the road picking up his children, but he wasn’t. He was in the White House sending them off to war…
“I don’t understand you, but I don’t try. I don’t try to judge nobody. I know that the only person I can judge is me… But I know this: that in your hearts and your own souls, you are as much responsible for the Vietnam war as I am for killing these people…
“I can’t judge any of you, but I will say this to you, you haven’t got long before you are all going to kill yourselves, because you are all crazy. And you can project it back at me… but I am only what lives inside each and every one of you.
“My father is the jailhouse. My father is your system. … I am only what you made me. I am only a reflection of you.
“I have ate out of your garbage cans to stay out of jail… I have wore your second-hand clothes… I have done my best to get along in your world, and now you want to kill me, and I look at you, and then I say to myself, you want to kill me? Ha! I am already dead, have been all my life. I’ve spent twenty-three years in tombs that you built.
“Sometimes I think about giving it back to you; sometimes I think about just jumping on you and letting you shoot me… If I could, I would jerk this microphone off and beat your brains out with it, because that is what you deserve! That is what you deserve…
“You expect to break me? Impossible! You broke me years ago. You killed me years ago.
“You can do anything you want with me, but you cannot touch me because I am my love. If you put me in the penitentiary, that means nothing because you kicked me out of the last one. I didn’t ask to be released. I liked in there because I liked myself.”
On April 19, 1971, Judge William Older sentenced Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie Van Houten to die. Ten months later (February 1972) the death penalty in California was abolished and their sentences were reduced to life imprisonment. But the drama wasn’t over. Not yet. I saw Charlie one more time, on an afternoon during the final stages of the Shea-Hinman trials. But by then the flamboyance was gone. He no longer looked like the high priest of flower power but an embittered convict.
He was seated in front of me, twenty feet away, just to my left beside his attorney. His head was shaved, the scar of a swastika stamped on his forehead; his jaw was dotted with a fine stubble. He looked old, worn-out, beaten. Since the early days of the trials, much had happened: a major earthquake had rocked Los Angeles, killing sixty-five people. Spahn’s Movie Ranch had burned to the ground. In less than one month of each other Jimi Hendrix (September 18, 1970) and Janis Joplin (October 4, 1970) had o.d.’d on drugs, perhaps symbolizing the end of an era. Someone once said, “all universes die”; looking at Charlie that afternoon, you got that feeling. Yet when I took the stand, he looked up suddenly and just stared at me, a strange half-leering smirk on his face.
As I spoke, he just watched me, tilting his head from side to side as if he were an artist attempting to get the right perspective for a painting. Maybe he was remembering, seeing as I had so many times the arc of the circle we had made in time, the journey from one end of the human condition to the other, from a perfect dream into the bowels of a nightmare from which I had awakened just in time.
I was in the midst of my testimony when Charlie suddenly lurched to his feet and shouted, “Liar! You’re a liar!”
“Order!” The gavel came down.
But Charlie didn’t stop. “No, no… little boy… you lie!”
Charlie was pulled to his seat, but his eyes were blazing, and I looked at him and held his gaze, and after a warning by the court, went on with my testimony.
As I spoke, Charlie raised his finger, grinning, and slowly drew it across his throat.
“You’re pathetic, Charlie,” I said.
Then Charlie was standing again.
“You’re a liar!” he roared.
“No, Charlie… I’m telling the truth!”
“Liar!” Charlie was pulled to his seat.
Then I was standing, filled suddenly with emotion – a surging of rage, remorse, and utter revulsion. “You… you… made it all a lie! You calling me a liar proves it! Your whole trip has been a lie.”
Charlie struggled to his feet and began grappling with the bailiff, but I didn’t stop yelling. “It’s like you said… the truth will set you free. I know that!”
“Sit down, Mr. Watkins!”
“I speak the truth, Charlie!”
“Remove Mr. Manson from the courtroom!”
Charlie was seized by both arms, but he continued to kick and struggle. “You’re just an insecure little boy!” he shouted.
“The truth, Charlie. The truth will set you free!”
They dragged Charlie out of the room.
“Order… there will be order in this courtoom!”
The door closed, and I slumped into my seat.COPYRIGHT PAUL WATKINS AND GUILLERMO SOLEDAD