A bankruptcy case involving a law firm doesn’t seem to have much to do with an investigation of decades-old unsolved murders. That’s because it shouldn’t.
Last week, however, a federal bankruptcy judge in Texas decided to hand over eight hours of taped conversations between Charles “Tex” Watson, a follower of the infamous Charles Manson, and his former attorney, the late Bill Boyd, to the Los Angeles Police Department. The tapes were held by Boyd Veigel, a law firm in McKinney, Texas, where Boyd once worked. The firm had filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and police argued that the tapes were part of the firm’s assets, giving U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Brenda T. Rhoades the authority to release them.
It is not clear exactly what investigators expect to find on the tapes. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and a lieutenant wrote, in a letter requesting the recordings, that “the LAPD has information that Mr. Watson discussed additional unsolved murders committed by followers of Charles Manson.” However, another official, Cmdr. Andrew Smith, said there were “no specific unsolved homicides” prompting police interest in the tapes. According to one of Manson’s prosecutors, Stephen Kay, Manson has claimed that his followers committed as many as 35 murders but has provided no details.
Watson is serving a life sentence for his involvement in seven murders committed on the nights of Aug. 9 and 10, 1969, including that of actress Sharon Tate. Manson, who was convicted of nine murders, is also serving a life sentence and was recently denied parole.
Ordinarily, attorney-client privilege would protect the tapes. News reports have indicated, however, that court records show Watson waived his right to attorney-client privilege in relation to his conversations with Boyd in 1976. Boyd then apparently sold copies of the tapes to Rev. Raymond G. Hoekstra, who used them in co-authoring, with Watson, a book titled “Will You Die for Me: The Man Who Killed for Charles Manson Tells His Own Story.” Bankruptcy trustee Linda Payne says Boyd put the proceeds of the sale, $49,000, toward the legal bills Watson had incurred.
Although she granted the LAPD’s request, Rhoades ordered that the tapes be kept sealed for 14 days to allow for a possible challenge by Watson’s current attorney, who says Watson never waived his confidentiality rights. Shortly before the police sought the tapes, Watson asked that his legal records be turned over to his nephew. “I’m so glad these documents didn't get in the wrong hands,” he wrote in his request.
Maybe Watson did knowingly waive his right to attorney-client privilege so that Boyd could sell access to the tapes and raise money for his defense. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe the lawyer’s understanding was that sharing the tapes with Hoekstra in order to fund Watson’s defense would not breach attorney-client privilege. Maybe the tapes actually belong to Watson, and the attorney was merely holding them for safekeeping, since Watson probably would not have wanted to keep them in his prison cell. With both the lawyer and the author now dead, there is nobody to ask except Watson, and he wants the tapes to be kept private.
One thing, however, is clear: If Watson waived his rights more 30 years ago when the tapes were first shared, it is hard to understand why police waited until now to go to court to seek access to them. It is even harder to understand why a bankruptcy judge would take it upon herself to release the tapes without requiring the police to meet the legal standards to obtain a search warrant or a subpoena. Rhoades has instead opted to give the LAPD license to conduct a court-sanctioned fishing expedition.
Watson is one of the least sympathetic defendants imaginable, with the exception of Manson himself. The principle of attorney-client privilege, however, is too important to be bent on a case-to-case basis. Without it, attorneys would be unable to do their jobs, and individuals would be forced to think twice before surrendering any information or property to their own counsel. To protect everyone’s rights, we must sometimes stand up for the rights of those who seem least worthy.
As a bankruptcy judge, Rhoades is accustomed to providing debtors with the possibility for a fresh start. Here, she seems to have wanted to do the same for stymied investigators. It’s a well-intentioned idea, but a misguided one. The judge should reconsider, or the State Bar of Texas should intervene and seek to take the case to a higher court. Attorney-client privilege is too important to sacrifice merely because it is being invoked by a man who helped commit one of the 20th century’s most notorious crimes.