Maxwell Keith center
Photo: Los Angeles Times
Maxwell S. Keith, the defense attorney for two members of the Manson family who went to prison for their roles in the grisly 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders, died Tuesday of natural causes in the San Luis Obispo County town of Templeton, his family said. He was 87.
Keith entered the sensational case in December 1970 when he was appointed by the court to replace the attorney for Leslie Van Houten, the former prom queen charged with murdering Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and conspiring to kill Sharon Tate and four others.
He took over her defense just before closing arguments and had only a few weeks to review more than 18,000 pages of court documents. The trial ended in a hung jury. He remained Van Houten’s attorney during the retrial, which ended in 1978 with her conviction for first-degree murder.
Keith also represented Charles “Tex” Watson, who in 1971 was convicted of first-degree murder for his involvement in the murders.
In both cases, Keith argued that his clients had been brainwashed by Manson into committing the heinous crimes.
He replaced attorney Ronald Hughes, who had disappeared during a rainstorm in Ventura County when the trial was nearing its end. Hughes’ body was found in a creek near his campsite several months later. No signs of foul play were found, but speculation abounded that he was killed after angering the cult leader with his vigorous defense of Van Houten.
Keith targeted Manson as the mastermind of the crime rampage that resulted in the deaths of seven people, including Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski.
But, none the less, despite his arguments both Watson and Van Houten were convicted and sentenced to death (a sentence which was later commuted to life in prison).