The lawyer who defended Charles Manson has died at age 100. Irving Kanarek (pictured above in 1970) defended the cult killer Manson whose macabre killings of actress Sharon Tate and six others created international headlines and intrigue.
The national spotlight that focused on Kanarek made his disruptive circus of courtroom tactics almost as fascinating as his bizarre clients. He also defended Jimmy Smith, whose murder of a police officer was told in the Joseph Wambaugh best seller ‘The Onion Field’. The Manson killings and the so-called Manson Family were described in prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s global best selling book on the murders, ‘Helter Skelter’ (See Bugliosi’s description of Kanarek below).
Those killings were among the most notorious crimes of the 1960s, and the national spotlight that focused on their trials made Kanarek’s disruptive and theatrical courtroom tactics almost as fascinating as his bizarre clients.
Manson’s family of odd young drifters were written about with fascination, along with Smith, the petty thief who could barely operate the pistol he carried.
For Kanarek, the trials were high points in a three-decade practice given to a more routine caseload of personal injury and damage claims. The law was not even his first calling. He had been an aerospace engineer for North American Aviation, but had lost his Air Force security clearance and his job after being falsely accused of Communist associations in the 1950s. He cleared his name, but the experience had soured him on science.
His first major case that lead to the ‘Onion Field’ killings arose in Los Angeles on a March night in 1963 with a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight on a car carrying Smith and a friend. As two officers approached, Mr. Smith and Mr. Powell drew guns, disarmed the officers and drove them 90 miles north to a remote onion farm near Bakersfield, California.
At the long-running Manson trial it was interesting that although Kanarek was well known for his tactics, every single attorney that served on the Tate-LaBianca trial, including Bugliosi, was cited or threatened with Contempt of Court by Judge Older at some point during the proceedings.
Bugliosi on Kanarek at the Manson Trial
Although little known elsewhere, Kanarek was something of a legend in the Los Angeles courts. The attorney’s obstructionist tactics had caused a number of judges to openly censure him from the bench. Kanarek stories were so common, and usually incredible, as to seem fictional when they were actually fact.
Prosecutor Burton Katz, for example, recalled that Kanarek once objected to a prosecution witness’s stating his own name because, having first heard his name from his mother, it was ‘hearsay.’
In the case of People vs. Goodman, Kanarek had stretched a simple theft case, which should have taken a few hours or a day at most, to three months. The amount stolen: $100. The cost to the taxpayers: $130,212.
In the case of People vs. Smith and Powell, Kanarek spent twelve and a half months of pre-trial motions. After an additional two months trying to pick a jury, Kanarek’s own client fired him in disgust. A year and a half after Irving Kanarek came onto the case, the jury still hadn’t been selected, nor a single witness called.
In the case of People vs. Bronson, Superior Court Judge Raymond Roberts told Kanarek:
‘I am doing my best to see that Mr. Bronson gets a fair trial in spite of you. I have never seen such obviously stupid, ill-advised questions of a witness. Are you paid by the word or by the hour that you can consume the Court’s time? You are the most obstructionist man I have ever met.’
Outside the presence of the jury, Judge Roberts defined Kanarek’s modus operandi as follows:
‘You take interminable lengths of time in cross-examining on the most minute, unimportant details; you ramble back and forth with no chronology of events, to just totally confuse everybody in the courtroom, to the utter frustration of the jury, the witnesses, and the judge.’
After examining the transcript, the Appellate Court found the judge’s remarks were not prejudicial but were substantiated by the trial record.
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