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Monday, July 20, 2009

Helter Skelter: The Truth Ain't All That's Out There

The broad fear of "stranger danger" that has characterized American law and society since the late 1960s  and the populist punitiveness that goes with it have many origins.  Some of them are undoubtedly historical.  The gated community may trace its DNA to the experience of European settlement of the continent in the face of often fierce resistance by Native Americans.  Our love affair with discretion wielding, heavily armed police may begin in the slave patrols.  But there is also something distinctly contemporary about this fear.   Violence by strangers against innocent and arbitrary victims was on the rise in the 60s and perhaps more importantly, was reinforced by a series of media spectacles of violence including the assassinations, riots, and mass murders between 1963 and 1968.  Indeed, one might almost say that this contemporary image of the stranger lurking outside our safe suburban homes has a face, and a birthday.  The face is that of convicted mass murderer Charles Manson and August 9th will mark the 40th anniversary of the morning when five bodies, four of them horribly stabbed, were discovered at the Benedict Canyon house rented by film stars Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski.  The July 2009 issue of Los Angeles Magazine includes an "oral history" of the Manson murders by Steve Oney which includes many reminders of why that horrific episode may have so much staying power in our penal imaginary.

  • While many initially blamed the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends as some bizarre dark side of Hollywood life, the murders the following night of two more ordinary upper middle class Angelenos, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, soon reframed the pattern as one of random risk to seemingly safe and secure people. 
  • The violence of the murders, and the fact that prosecution witnesses would later describe loud screaming and pleading by the victims underscored a fear that is distinctive to the large suburban house which has been deliberately distanced from pedestrians and neighbors. While Americans were fleeing the city to escape crime they associated with the disordered and dangerous residents of the urban core, the Tate-LaBianca murders would epitomize the opposite fear; in suburbia, like space, no one can hear you scream.
  • Whatever may be said of the racialization of crime fear, Manson was a white (racist) drifter with a considerable history in the penal system, and his cohorts were all white middle class youth   who Manson collected in settings like San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district.  According to the prosecution, his prime motivation for the murders was to launch a race war from out of the chaos of which he would apparently emerge as the prime leader (a future Manson believed was prophesied by the Beatle's song "Helter Skelter ").
  • The crimes unified opinion in the state's most influential city behind the successful capture and prosecution of the Manson "family."  An LA jury handed death sentences not only to Manson and "Tex" Watson, but to three young white female defendants as well.  Less than a year later, the California Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty in People v. Anderson, 6 Cal. 3d 628 (Cal. 1972).  The decision, which preceded the US Supreme Court's Furman decision by some months, set off a negative backlash that helped reshape California state politics for a generation.  The leaders of the movement to restore the death penalty in the state and the coaltion of law enforcement agencies and politicians the movement created, became the backbone of California's commitment not only to the death penalty, but to mass incarceration on a broad scale (See the forthcoming dissertation of Michael Campbell, UC Irvine's Criminology, Law & Society program).

Posted by Jonathan Simon on July 20, 2009 at 12:34 PM | Permalink


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I don't doubt that the Manson murders seemed random, and had all the effects mentioned. But the Tate murders were not "random," even though Tate was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The house belonged to Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who had befriended Manson and let the Manson "Family" stay there. Wilson worked with Manson on a song Manson had written, but Wilson eventually withdrew from supporting him and grew concerned about Manson's violent nature. After the break, Wilson lent his home to Roman Polanski and Tate.

It seems most likely that Manson sent the Family killers to exact revenge on Wilson, but they fell upon Tate instead.

Not that it makes the killings any less horrific, or even random in the sense of the disconnect to Tate, but worth noting.

Also, LaBiancas do seem to have been a purely random add-on.

Posted by: anonner | Jul 24, 2009 4:52:29 PM

On the timing issue I continue to think the very early 1970s are important, even though they were not immediately followed by a surge in incarceration. The rash of scary murders for which the Manson family remains the poster child helped forge the kind of broad social consensus behind harsh punishment and strong law enforcement that would be required for a sustained war on crime. Because these murders involved suburban-like settings (even if within the always obscure municipal boundaries of LA) and white upper middle class victims, they underscored the generality of the murder threat. That the constitutional challenge to the death penalty reached its crux during this very period had two very important consequences (see Marie Gottschalk, The Prison and the Gallows). First, it helped build the backlash that greeted Furman (and Anderson in California) and diminished liberal sentiment in favor of abolition at a crucial moment (Sharon Tate and her friends like Warren Beatty were the kind of Hollywood liberals that contributed to progressive causes). Second, it cemented the idea that the public cannot be protected from some killers (the worst of the worst) with ordinary sentences. It would take most of the next decade for the political coalition behind mass incarceration to take power in California (George Deukmejian who led the ballot initiative battle to restore the death penalty became governor in 1983 and set about rapidly expanding the prison system). This coalition (a bipartisan one as Gray Davis demonstrated), has always relied on the scariest (often most atypical) criminals, like Manson, and Richard Allen Davis, to drive legal changes, like 3-Strikes in California, that end up being applied to much more ordinary offenders.

Posted by: Jonathan Simon | Jul 20, 2009 8:46:59 PM

For those of you who have some questions about the death penalty, a read of a book entitled “Picking Cotton” will have an impact. It did for me.

Posted by: Reggie Greene / The Logistician | Jul 20, 2009 6:51:20 PM

I concur that the timing just isn't right for the legislative reaction that drive the dramatic increase in sentence lengths that led to the current long sentences we see today.

Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill continued until the late 1990s, most of the constitutionalization of federal criminal procedure followed this event (with considerable popular support at first, despite the vehemence of those opposed to it) and many of the large sentencing increases for violent crime were not adopted until the late 1990s. Drug laws were quite lenient compared to those in effect today into the 1980s, at least.

Most of the modern "three stikes" laws were passed between 1993 and 2004, with California passing its law in 1994 (notably, by initiative).

One of the earliest manifestations of the touch on crime regime was the adoption in New York of the Rockefeller drug laws in 1973, but while that was closer in time, it shows no link in geography or crime character to the Manson case.

Indeed, Manson's case, while horrific, may have actually postponed draconian sentencing precisely because it "culture jammed" the popular sense of who committed horrible crimes. While the Manson murders may have impressed upon the public that there was a problem in society, the fact that two white men and three white women were given the death penalty in the case did nothing to suggest to the public that criminal sentencing options were not tough enough when rare serious cases arose.

Part of what made both the drug war and mass incercaration tolerable to legislators and the public was the perception that serious crime against strangers was a product of an alienated, sociopathic underclass subculture of gangs and violence which the family members of the politically active would never be involved with, and the perception that hardened criminals who were unreformed were quickly returning to the streets. Mandatory minimum sentences, which evidence a fear that judges are too lenient (perhaps in a form of regulatory capture) not mandatory maximum sentences, were at the core of the sentencing reforms that drove mass incarceration.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jul 20, 2009 6:25:55 PM

I wasn't around at the time, but what I've read certainly suggests that the Manson murders had a huge impact on the psychology of Southern Californians regarding crime. I don't think either the Tates or the LaBiancas can be regarded as fleeing the city for suburbia, though. They both lived in the relatively developed city limits, particularly the LaBiancas in Los Feliz (although the city/suburb distinction is blurred given LA's distinctive geography). This characterization might hold true more for the Kevin Cooper murders in Chino Hills in 1983.

I think it's certainly right that the commutation of Manson's sentence from death to life has been a rallying cry for pro-death penalty forces. As a kid growing up in SoCal, I remember hearing people (non-law specialists) cite Manson's being alive despite receiving a death sentence as the ultimate object lesson in what was wrong with the soft-on-crime left.

Whether there's a link between Manson and "mass incarceration on a broad scale", though, seems like a harder question. I've always understood the latter to be a product of the revival of a hard-line approach to crime generally in the 80s, fueled largely by white fear of black crime and/or the "war on drugs". Gory mass murders got a lot of attention, but always seemed to me relatively rare and localized events, lacking the frequency necessary to pack penitentiaries (unlike, for example, draconian drug laws that enable incarceration of countless people on a daily basis).

Posted by: Dave | Jul 20, 2009 1:43:39 PM

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