• U.S.

The Law: The Missing Manson Lawyer

2 minute read

After Charles Manson delivered his extraordinary sermon against society last month (TIME, Nov. 30), his trial seemed all but ended. He refused to repeat his testimony for the jury and ordered silence for the three girls, who are his co-defendants in the Tate-LaBianca murders case. Since the defense had presented no witnesses, the only unfinished business was the lawyers’ final arguments, various motions and the judge’s charge to the jury. Then one of the defense attorneys vanished.

Ronald Hughes, the blond, bushy-bearded 250-pounder who had never tried a case before, drove into the mountains north of Los Angeles to soak and think in some hot springs. According to two friends, heavy rains mired their Volkswagen in mud; his friends hitchhiked out, while Hughes decided to stay. As the rains continued, the wilderness area was evacuated. Campers had seen Hughes walking in the rugged terrain, and the Volkswagen was later found with some trial transcripts in it, but no Hughes.

New Lawyer. The odds are overwhelming that he was trapped in the flooding, but rumors proliferated anyway. Some newsmen remembered Hughes saying of Manson, “I’m afraid of him.” One inevitable speculation was that Manson followers had kidnaped or killed the attorney. Or perhaps Hughes had disappeared to gain a mistrial and severance from the other defendants for his client, Leslie Van Houten, against whom the prosecution’s case is generally considered weakest.

Despite the disappearance, Judge Charles Older ordered the trial to proceed and appointed a co-counsel, Maxwell Keith, for Van Houten. The girls angrily demanded the firing of all their lawyers, and asked to reopen the defense so that they could put 2.1 witnesses on the stand. Judge Older said no. By week’s end Hughes had been missing for 15 days, and searchers in the mountains doubted that he would be found alive. Meanwhile the judge gave Keith until this week to familiarize himself with the transcript, which totals 18,000 pages. That may have seemed unreasonable, but the fact is that few lawyers could figure out the Manson case in a lifetime.

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