Criminal Theory Application: Charles Manson

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Charles Manson is one of the most notorious criminals in American history. He is recognized as the leader of a group of young people who in the 1970s murdered nine members of the Hollywood upper class. These killings became known as the Tate-LaBianca murders and resulted in a publicized trial that drew national attention. Manson is currently serving a life sentence for the crimes. His group of followers became known during the trial as the Manson Family, members of which were convicted alongside Manson. The trial and testimonies reveal a glimpse into the mind of Manson, and would in time prove to have an enormous cultural impact as the entire nation learned his name.

In order to understand the reasons for Manson’s criminal behaviors, it is necessary to compile a comprehensive view of his life up until the murders. This requires examining the different socio-economic, cultural, and familial influences within Manson’s personal history. Manson had a troubled youth, expressing deviant behaviors that were in many ways indicative that he would continue to perpetrate crime throughout the rest of his life. “Manson began as a small-time car thief and pimp who was paroled in 1967” (Broyard, 1971). These crimes are small in scope when compared to the eight murders Manson would later be incarcerated for having organized. However, they point towards a lifelong tendency than Manson had towards deviant behaviors.

Manson spent time in and out of prison throughout his entire life, serving his first prison sentence at age 16 (Atchison & Heide, 2010). These prison sentences were for petty crime, primarily theft. Manson began stealing cars when he moved to California in 1955 and continued to break criminal law stealing checks and pimping out young women. (“Charles Manson biography,” n.d.). These crimes led him to serve repeat prison sentences repeatedly. In total, he would spend more than half of his life imprisoned before being incarcerated in 1970 (“Charles Manson biography,” n.d.). It is interesting to consider the escalation of Manson’s criminal activity over the years from counts of petty theft to his eventual guilty sentence on the counts of nine murders.

Part of the motivation behind Manson’s continued criminal activity was his lower-class socio-economic background. Manson’s mother was a prostitute who had him when she was sixteen and was consequentially unable to provide a stable home environment for him to grow up in (“Charles Manson biography,” n.d.). This in part led to Manson’s criminal behavior, as he sought out different methods of survival on the streets.

In California, Manson accumulated a following of musicians and hippies, with which he formed the group that came to be known as the Manson Family. These Family members were primarily young women from backgrounds comparable to Manson’s own shaky upbringing (“Charles Manson,” n.d.) Manson accumulated a following of impressionable young people with whom he spoke of a disturbing philosophy. These people bought into his ideas and followed Manson’s teachings about how society was to become newly structured. It was these followers who would eventually carry out Manson’s plan for the murders of Hollywood’s wealthy class. Manson himself did not participate in the murders, however orchestral he was in the planning stages of the Tate-LaBianca killings, (Atchison & Heide, 2010). Instead, it was the young women in the Family who carried out violent killings.

Racial relations during the time period that Manson lived were strained in many ways. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, there was a decreased amount of blatant racism, however, intolerance was still abundant between black and white citizens. Manson had ideas of an imminent race war that would sweep the United States (Charles Manson, n.d.) He was convinced that he would pay an important role in organizing this uprising, thinking of himself as a sort of messiah. During the 1970 trial, Manson admitted to some of these delusions, “I may have implied on several different occasions to several different people that I may have been Jesus Christ,” (“Testimony,” 1970). This personal philosophy manifested itself as dangerous, resulting in Manson’s plan to create disorder among civilized society with the murder of prominent figures.

In addition to examination of Manson’s personal history, a full explanation for the crimes requires consideration of different criminological theories. The Tate-LaBianca murders can be explained using the theories of differential association, and social conflict theory. Each concept provides a different rationale as to why criminal behavior occurs and can be applied to provide deeper insight into the Manson case.

Differential association theory relies on the idea that criminal behavior is a learned process, realized through socialization (Cressey, 1954). This learning is done amongst peers, thus crime becomes a form of a social bond. The learning of criminal behavior includes the process of how a crime is actually committed, as well as realizing the values and motivations that drive such behavior. (Cressey, 1954). A person is able to orient themselves with the social values leading criminal activity and recognize their behavior as it aligns with the social norms of criminals. This theoretic explanation for crime can be applied to Charles Manson in examination of “The Family.” A loyal group of followers perpetrated some of the most famous murders in history, under the guidance of one man. Differential association theory details a tendency of peer groups to interact in socially negative behavior patterns, as is exemplified by the “followers” of Manson.

Differential association provides an explanation for how criminal behavior is learned, comparing it to the entirety of human behavior. The cognitive process allows for humans to learn by observation and imitation, such as when we first learn to walk and talk. This idea theorizes that criminal activity is not any different from other learned behaviors (Edwin H. Sutherland, n.d.). Differential association can be used to explain deviant behaviors amongst groups of people. Those who engage in deviant behavior follow a different moral code, one that is not necessarily tied to criminal law.

This theory is limited in that it does not encompass an explanation for types of crimes in which the perpetrator does not have a particularly clear criminal intent. (Cressey, 1954). For example, certain crimes are classified as such according to technicalities of the law, without any required proof of intent. Other exceptions include “situational crimes” as well as “compulsive crimes” (Cressey, 1954). Both types of crime require different explanations for the behavior patterns that drive them. Although there were a series of murders committed in a short period of time, the behavior of Manson’s followers cannot

This theory describes the types of crime that people are likely to engage in as being peer-oriented. The Manson Family lived together on an isolated compound and had various types of free sex as well as emotional relationships amongst each other. Differential association theory provides a strong explanation for the nature of these relationships as the perpetrators were brought together by their intent on particular behaviors that led to criminal activity. Of additional interest is the fact of how isolated this compound was from anybody outside of the Family. “When people become criminal, they do so not only because of contacts with criminal patterns but also because of isolation from anti-criminal patterns,” (Sutherland, n.d.). According to this theory, the crimes were facilitated by isolation in combination with peer learning.

An additional theory of criminological behavior that can be applied to the Manson case is that of social conflict theory. What we can deduce from the theory is that the crimes committed by Manson and his followers were in reaction to forces of the time period. This provides an explanation as to why the murder victims were such well-known, wealthy members of society. The theory presents a strong application for the perceived correlation between deviant behaviors and class conflict. During the 1970s, there was increased opposition about the United States entering war, and many found themselves disillusioned. “The late 1960s were a time when heavy substance abuse and counterculture movements were embraced by many youths,” (Atchison & Heide, 2010). These movements were described as revolutionary, as many young people identified with leaders of popular culture who expressed such ideas.

Manson reflected these sentiments and in such a way that supports social conflict theory in his trial statements. “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,” (“Testimony,” 1970). Manson demonstrated with these remarks the popular anti-war sentiment at the time period, as many people did not support the Nixon administration’s escalation of the war in Vietnam.

During this time, Manson developed a theory of Helter Skelter. This idea, taken from a song track by The Beatles, described what he saw as the inevitable descent into chaos that society was on the brink of, which he and his followers would evade hiding on the compound (Linder, 2007). Helter Skelter would begin with the high-profile murder cases of Hollywood’s famous members and end with the start of the race war that Manson had predicted (Linder, 2007). This idea never reached fruition, although the term has become widely associated with Manson’s philosophy.

It is evident that societal forces of the time period had a large impact on the crimes committed, as Manson attests repeatedly on the court transcript that he provided a family for the young women when they were rejected from everybody else. Manson described in his trial testimony the group as being made up of people who he had chosen to accept. “Most of the people at the ranch that you call the Family were just people that you did not want, people that were alongside the road, that their parents had kicked out, that did not want to go to Juvenile Hall” (“Testimony,” 1970). In this way, Manson identified himself as somebody who had prevented harm to impressionable young people by giving them a place to stay and a family to care for them.

There is a close relationship between the theories of why criminological behavior occurs and the measures that are put in place to prevent crime, (Rawlins, 2005). Manson’s trial statements indicate certain limitations of this criminological theory. He repeatedly reflects an indifference to the punishment of being incarcerated. Manson’s behavior indicates his belief that society is responsible for the actions he has committed, which supports the application of social conflict theory to explain the case. In this way, Manson can be looked to as an exemplification of societal forces of conflict that were on an increased scale during the 1970s.

It is through careful consideration of the many facets of Charles Manson’s life that we are able to come to a series of explanations as to why he engaged in particular criminal activities. The combination of various personal stresses that persisted from an economically disadvantaged childhood influenced ideas about society that Manson would later act upon with the orchestration of the Tate-LaBianca murders. These influences can be examined through a comprehensive understanding of the theories that drive deviant behavior and used to conclusively determine which motivations drove Manson to establish a following of corrupted youth to commit such violent crimes. Manson’s actions can be explained through use of the differential association theory, and additional theories of social conflict. These criminological theories provide the template for deviant behaviors, through which the famous murders can be better understood.


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