Maxwell S. Keith Dies at 87; Replacement Lawyer in Manson Case

The New York Times/March 10, 2012

Maxwell S. Keith, who defended two members of the so-called Manson family in their notorious cult murder trials, stepping in after the lawyer for one of them disappeared under mysterious circumstances, died on Tuesday in Templeton, Calif. He was 87.

His daughter Hilary Keith confirmed the death.

In December 1970, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles appointed Mr. Keith to represent Leslie Van Houten, one of three young women on trial with Charles Manson for the gruesome killings of seven people over two August nights in 1969.

The first night's victims were the actress Sharon Tate, who was married to the director Roman Polanski and was eight and a half months pregnant; Abigail Folger, an heiress to the Folger coffee fortune; Jay Sebring, a celebrity hairstylist; Voytek Frykowski; and Steven Parent. They were killed by intruders at Ms. Tate's home near Beverly Hills.

The next night, a supermarket executive and his wife, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, were murdered in their Los Angeles home after returning from a vacation.

The trial had begun almost six months before Mr. Keith was appointed to the case. Ms. Van Houten, who was accused in only the LaBianca murders, had been represented by Ronald Hughes, but during a recess as the trial approached its conclusion, Mr. Hughes vanished after a hard rainstorm while he was on a camping trip. (His body was found several months later, and though no charges have ever been brought, it has long been speculated that members of the Manson cult killed him.)

Mr. Keith was given a short time to absorb about 18,000 pages of court documents, and though he said he was familiar enough with the evidence to proceed when the trial resumed just before Christmas, he asked the court to declare a mistrial on the basis of his not having been present to hear witnesses testify. The judge, Charles H. Older, denied the request, and Mr. Keith went on to present a defense that separated Ms. Van Houten's interests from Mr. Manson's.

Mr. Keith contended that Ms. Van Houten and the other young women, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel (along with another member of the cult, Charles Watson, who would be tried later), had been brainwashed by Mr. Manson and were incapable of thinking or acting on their own. In his closing argument, he latched on to how the prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, had referred to them as robots.

"If you believe the prosecution theory that these female defendants and Mr. Watson were extensions of Mr. Manson — his additional arms and legs, as it were — if you believe that they were mindless robots, they cannot be guilty of premeditated murder," Mr. Keith said.

In his book about the case, "Helter Skelter," Mr. Bugliosi said Mr. Keith had "delivered the best of the four defense arguments," though it was to no avail. The three women and Mr. Manson were convicted of murder, and in a subsequent trial Mr. Watson, defended by Mr. Keith, was found guilty in all seven murders. All were given the death penalty, but when California temporarily abolished capital punishment in 1972, their sentences were reduced to life in prison.

Maxwell Stanley Keith was born in Pasadena, Calif., on July 16, 1924. World War II interrupted his education at Princeton, and he served in the Pacific as a bombardier in the Army Air Forces. He graduated from Princeton after the war and from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Before becoming a defense lawyer in private practice, he worked in the district attorney's office in Los Angeles. In 1960, he and a partner defended Dr. R. Bernard Finch, a wealthy physician from West Covina, Calif., who, in a scandalous case that seized national headlines, was convicted of killing his wife.

In addition to his daughter Hilary, Mr. Keith is survived by his wife, the former Alison Cronkhite, whom he married in 1953; three other daughters, Elizabeth Keith, Alison Stirling and Adelaide Muro; two sons, Gordon and Alexander; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

In 1976, Ms. Van Houten's conviction was overturned when an appeals court ruled that Judge Older should have ordered a retrial when Mr. Hughes disappeared. Her second trial ended without a verdict, but in 1978 she was convicted again. Mr. Keith represented her throughout. Both she and Mr. Watson remain in prison.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.