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Cruel and Unusual

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I glanced at the window and there was a solitary figure standing in the other room. Even though the only images I had of her were from television and media news photos, I recognized her. She saw me and smiled. It was a nice, friendly smile.

I got up, walked to the door and the Correctional Officer motioned me through. I opened the door and stepped inside. She stood perfectly still a few feet away in the middle of the room.

I'm not sure what I expected, but it was a relief to see what appeared to be a normal human being in front of me ­ a small woman with graying, well-groomed hair, cut short just below the ears. Her face was round and pleasant with no trace of makeup. Her eyes narrowed when she smiled, which was often. Best of all, her countenance was open and inviting. She wore a longsleeve, gray sweatshirt, dark blue jeans and white cotton slippers over white socks ­ no prison garb. No evidences of nonconformity or a pallid complexion from being locked up for 30 years. No tics or unusual behavior. She looked like any middle-aged woman one would encounter in a grocery store, casually browsing through bins of fruits and vegetables.

I don't know why, but I walked over and hugged her. Although it was spontaneous, it felt awkward and contrived. She hugged me back. It wasn't the type of embrace old friends or family members give each other ­ it just happened and it seemed right.

Never one to let dead air prevail, I spoke first. "I want to tell you something you probably already know. You're in the middle of nowhere out here."

"Yeah, it's remote, but years ago when I first came here, you almost never saw a car," she said, staring off into space, as if the mention of it took her back in time. "Now, you see them everyday ­ lots of them."

The California Institution for Women is isolated ­ more like a farm than a prison. No imposing multi-story buildings with bars on the windows, or tall, foreboding watchtowers manned with guards. No miles of barbed wire ­ just wide-open fields with one-story brick buildings situated behind chain link fences.

I was here to visit Patricia Krenwinkel, one of the convicted killers in the infamous Manson Family trial of the late 1960s.

* * *

It was an ordinary day in the mid-1990s ­ nothing special. I was home, watching television. I stopped short to catch what seemed to be a documentary program already in progress. Two long tables faced each other. There were four or five men and women seated behind one, and a woman and two men at the other.

I could tell by their expressions that the mood was serious. The camera switched to a close-up of a woman who seemed to be the target of an interview. She had dark hair, wasn't particularly pretty, but was nonetheless well-dressed and reasonably attractive. She wore a dark suit and looked to be in her early 40s. I soon learned she was Patricia Krenwinkel.

The docudrama seemed to be a parole hearing, but in spite of its compelling nature, my mind wandered back in time to the 60s and I recalled bits and pieces of the Manson case. Sharon Tate came to mind ­ and a prosecutor named Bugliosi.

When I re-focused on the hearing, the proceedings were deliberate. Two men, who I assumed were Krenwinkel's lawyers, were shuffling papers, answering questions about what Krenwinkel had been doing with her life these past 25 years.

Twenty-five years? Had it been that long?

It was the late 60s ­ 1969 to be precise. These were crimes so horrendous that they not only shocked Los Angeles, they startled and stunned the entire country. It was the sheer brutality and senselessness of them that shook everyone to their cores.

One wonders how an itinerant band of hippies can be led and profoundly influenced by a dysfunctional, 34-year-old ex-con, ex-musician, ex-husband, and certifiable sociopath. By any measure, Charles Manson was thoroughly pernicious and unattractive ­ short, stoop-shouldered and scruffy ­ a man who, apparently, had no redeeming qualities.

Why would these people plan and carry out the murders of complete strangers? As one of the killers casually stated later, "We wanted to do something that would shock the world ­ that the world would stand up and take notice."

On a warm August evening, Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins and Linda Kasabian drove to a house in the Benedict Canyon section of Los Angeles, chosen at random. High on LSD and bent on destruction, they literally invaded the house and grounds armed with guns and knives.

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