Defending Charles Manson

Here’s one of the most interesting articles I’ve read in a long time (courtesy of The Guardian). It’s four short essays written by attorneys who have defended horrendous criminals. Their perspectives are more sympathetic and self-aware than you would expect, even if they do come across as a tad bit self-promoting. It’s definitely worth a read (on a tangential note, the article might contain the most civil and intelligent comment section discussion that I’ve ever seen online).

Three of the attorneys in this article openly acknowledge that their infamous clients were guilty and discuss the implications and legal theory of giving a proper defense to an absolute monster. What it boils down to is that it’s a messy job but someone’s got to do it. I have to give these guys credit – I’m glad it’s them and not me.

The one outlier of the group is Irving Kanarek, who defended Charles Manson when he was tried for conspiracy to murder in 1971. At 94 years old, Kanarek still maintains that, based upon the evidence presented at trial, Manson should not have been convicted. His essential point seems to be that Manson was a total weirdo and he hung out with other total weirdoes who killed people, but that Manson himself had no involvement in the crime. Kanarek seems to feel that Manson was convicted because the prosecution needed a boogey man and he fit the mold.

Predictably, Kanarek comes across as fairly unsympathetic, an old man who can’t let go of the past. At this point there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that Charles Manson is a dangerous criminal with severe mental problems, and we’d all prefer that he be kept out of our otherwise pleasant society.

What interests me about Kanarek’s commentary is that until I read them I had never even considered the possibility that Manson might not be guilty of a crime. As a child of the ‘80’s I guess I’d always just assumed that the Manson case never even went to trial; that between his drooling and rambling he’d managed to utter a guilty plea and that was that. I was under that impression because it’s consistent with the Charles Manson Narrative that I grew up with.

The Narrative is that Manson is an evil psychopath who should be locked up forever, everybody knows it and always has, end of story. That Narrative has persisted because it’s largely accurate, but it’s also led me to an obscured understanding of the actual history of events. Under the Narrative, the idea that the evidence against Manson was lacking in any respect seems laughable. But Kanarek has a narrative of his own, and his narrative is valid even if it’s incorrect.

The question of historic narrative vs. historic fact is obvious not limited to Charlie Manson. If it were the debate would die with Kanarek and would hardly be worth having to begin with. Another prime example is the 1960 Presidential Election. My generation has grown up with the impression that Kennedy was an unbeatable force, and that Nixon was an out of touch old codger who never stood a chance. The fact is that aside from getting walloped in one famously televised debate, Nixon ran a strong campaign and it was one of the closest elections in U.S. History.

So where do misleading historic narratives come from? My best theory is that they’re generational. The people who lived through a particular event often remember it the way it felt rather than the way it was. Manson was a very scary guy and his disciples did horrifying things, so it becomes the story of a monster. Kennedy was an optimistic young charmer and Nixon was a humorless fixture of the Establishment, so it becomes the story of the stubborn Past being pushed aside by an unavoidable Future.

All of that is perfectly understandable. We tend to remember things through our own historical lens, so everyone’s recollection will be a little bit obscured. There are facts and then there are the things we remember. I wonder how I’ll end up misleading my kids.

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