Fifteen years after her daughter’s death, Doris Tate conjured that futile plea as she sat across from a Manson Family member convicted of killing Tate and four others at the star’s home on Aug. 9, 1969.
“What mercy, sir, did you show my daughter when she was begging for her life?” Doris Tate asked Charles “Tex” Watson during his 1984 parole hearing. “When will I come up for parole? Can you tell me that? Will the seven victims and possibly more walk out of their graves if you get parole?”
The moment was powerful not only because of the words Tate chose, but because of what they represented: the first victim impact statement in California.
Manson, who died Sunday, will be remembered for many things: his ability to manipulate, his failed musical aspirations and his capacity for evil.
But his legacy will also include an unintended, positive consequence that has benefited countless people in the decades since Tate’s death. Because of the work her mother began and her sisters continued, victims’ voices carry a weight in the nation’s legal system and none of Manson’s minions, including Watson, have seen freedom.
Doris Tate helped get the Victims’ Bill of Rights, which allowed for victim impact statements, passed in California in 1982. All 50 states now allow victims to speak either written or orally at certain phases of the legal process, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime.
“Victim impact statements are often the victims’ only opportunity to participate in the criminal justice process or to confront the offenders who have harmed them,” the center’s website reads. “Many victims report that making such statements improves their satisfaction with the criminal justice process and helps them recover from the crime.”
Doris Tate wasn’t a natural activist. She spent more than a decade after her oldest daughter’s brutal death devastated by her grief. She came forward publicly only after she learned that one of Manson’s devotees, Leslie Van Houten, had gathered 900 signatures in support of her obtaining parole. Tate, working with the National Enquirer, which printed coupons for people to sign and mail, made sure that didn’t happen. She gathered 350,000 signatures against Van Houten’s parole.
Tate later founded the Coalition on Victims’ Equal Rights and worked the rest of her life toward victims’ rights. In 1992, before her death that year at 68, President George H.W. Bush honored her as one of his “thousand points of light.”
“You can’t make sense out of the innocent slaughter of Sharon and the other victims,” Tate once said. “The most that I, or any person touched by violence, can hope for is acceptance of the pain. You never forget it, not even with the passage of time. But, if, in my work, I can help transform Sharon’s legacy from murder victim to a symbol for victims’ rights, I will have accomplished what I set out to do.”
Sharon Tate was the oldest daughter of Doris and Paul Tate. She was only 6 months old when her beauty first gained her recognition. She was named a Miss Tiny Tot of Texas. Later, when she was a teenager, as the daughter of an Army colonel, she appeared in a bathing suit on the cover of the military publication Stars and Stripes.
As an actress, even when she appeared in poorly reviewed films, critics noted how striking she looked. Hollywood embraced her and she counted among her friends Mia Farrow and Tony Curtis.
She met director Roman Polanski while filming “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and she wore a white mini dress when she married him Jan. 20, 1968. Later that year, she became pregnant and the two started looking for a larger home. They found one at 10050 Cielo Drive.
Manson knew the address. He had been there before. Record producer Terry Melcher had lived there, and Manson had hoped Melcher, who had auditioned him, was going to sign him to a record deal. But he didn’t.
“Manson was mad about that,” Michael McGann, a detective at the time, recalled in a Los Angeles Magazine oral history. “It’s no accident he sent his group to Cielo.”
“Now is the time for Helter Skelter,” Manson told a group of his followers the afternoon before the murders, referring to the race wars he hoped to start, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi told the magazine. “Go to the former home of Terry Melcher and kill everyone on the premises.”
Bulgliosi said Watson, who was later confronted by Tate’s mother, then gathered Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian to help with the task. Killed alongside Tate were Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steven Parent. Polanksi, who later admitted unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl but fled the country in 1977 before he could stand trial for it, was out of town at the time of the killings.
The next night, Manson followers killed two more people — Leno and Rosemary LaBianca — and wrote “Healter Skelter” in blood on a refrigerator.
The murders left Hollywood shaken. Stars reportedly moved, and in two days, a Beverly Hills sporting goods store sold 200 firearms, according to media reports.
Kasabian, who served as a lookout during both nights of the murders, became a key witness for prosecutors and was granted immunity. Manson and the others were convicted and sentenced to death in 1971. Because the California Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, their sentences were changed to life in prison.
After her mother’s death, Tate’s sister Patti Tate continued to fight for victims and to keep the Manson family in prison. When Patti died of breast cancer in 2000, her sister Debra Tate took on that role.
She wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times this year that ran under the headline “Why members of the Manson family still don’t deserve parole after murdering my sister.” Debra Tate wrote the piece after attending the 14th parole hearing of Krenwinkel, for which she had gathered 98,000 signatures in 13 days opposing the release. More than 10,000 people also wrote letters.
“Look up the word ‘sociopath,’” Tate wrote. “You will see there is no cure for this affliction. There is no medication, no programming that can relieve it. … Krenwinkel — and all the members of the Manson family — should never be granted parole.”
Just like her mother, Tate also fought against the release of Manson follower Leslie Van Houten, whose parole was granted by a panel of state commissioners in September but is pending review. Van Houten was not present for Sharon Tate’s murder but participated in the LaBianca killings.
Shortly after Manson died, Debra Tate received a phone call from prison officials with the news, she told the NY Daily News.
“I said a prayer,” she told the paper, “shed a tear, stuck a flower under my cross in my bedroom and emailed Roman (Polanksi).”