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PROFILE: Underestimating evil?

National | After three decades behind bars, former Manson follower-turned-Christian believer Bruce Davis thinks the state has punished him enough-but is reconciled to the fact that God "is giving me what I need"

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

The first time Bruce Davis saw him, Charles Manson was lounging in an antique bathtub under a shade tree, ringed by half-naked women and smoking a joint. It was Topanga Canyon, L.A., 1968. "I thought, 'Man, this is where it's at,'" Mr. Davis remembers: "I didn't leave that house for six weeks."

Ultimately, he didn't leave Charles Manson, either. That decision would vault his life down a hideous trail that led from a hedonist's paradise of drugs and lust to what at that time were the grisliest murders in U.S. history. Charles Manson, Charles "Tex" Watson, and other Mansonites were convicted of murdering in 1969 actress Sharon Tate and her four houseguests, along with grocery chain magnate Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. A separate jury nailed Mr. Davis for his role in the Manson-ordered murders of musician Gary Hinman and ranch hand Donald "Shorty" Shea. When the gates at California's Folsom State Prison slammed shut behind Mr. Davis, the Vietnam conflict was evening news, Watergate was an infant scandal, and gasoline cost 36 cents a gallon.

His sentence: Seven years to life. He is now on year number 29.

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Nineteen parole hearings have yielded 19 denials. His 20th hearing, slated for last month, was just rescheduled for the third time. And California Gov. Gray Davis has publicly declared that any prisoner with "life" in his sentence will never see freedom on his watch. But Davis the prisoner says that even if the state never shows him mercy, his is still a story about the grace and mercy of God.

I visited Bruce Davis and his wife Beth inside the California Men's Colony (CMC), a medium-security prison to which he was transferred in 1980. In the visiting room, two tables away, convicted felon and former rap-music thug Marion "Suge" (as in 'sugar') Knight talked with a silk-suited visitor. But Mr. Davis looked like a different man than the smirking stoner pictured in the pages of Vincent Bugliosi's Manson chronicle Helter Skelter. His hair has gone from brown to steely gray. He stood in his prison dungarees with a bowed, deferential posture. The man whom L.A. prosecutors once called "Manson's right-hand man" clasped my hand, bowed his head, and asked God to bless our meeting with candor and truth. Mr. Davis's cobalt eyes looked straight at mine, and he said he is sorry for his crimes.

Those crimes are among the world's most infamous. On July 25, 1969-exactly 15 days before the Tate-LaBianca butchery-three Mansonites paid a visit to musician Gary Hinman. They planned to rob him blind. But when death threats and a pistol-whipping did not produce an outpouring of cash, Charles Manson and Bruce Davis drove to the musician's home to provide additional motivation. Mr. Manson listened impassively to the victim's pleas, then used a sword to slice Mr. Hinman's left ear in half. Mr. Manson and Mr. Davis then drove off, leaving the others to torture Mr. Hinman for two more days before stabbing him to death.

A month later-two weeks after Tate-LaBianca-Mr. Davis was involved in the murder of Shorty Shea, a bit-part actor and on-again, off-again ranch hand. Mr. Shea had displeased Mr. Manson, who responded by gathering Mr. Davis, other members of the pack, and four sharpened German bayonets, plus the sword Mr. Manson had used to slice Mr. Hinman's ear. The group ambushed and killed Mr. Shea; Mr. Davis says he did not commit the murder but admits that he then followed Mr. Manson's orders and slashed the victim after he was dead.

"It was the only time Manson asked me to go on a murder," Mr. Davis says. "I didn't have the guts to say no." With police looking for him and other Mansonites, he became a fugitive, but finally surrendered to police on Dec. 5, 1970. (He didn't know that Christian relatives in Alabama had been praying he'd do just that.) Mr. Davis stood trial and, upon conviction, landed in Folsom.

There, in the fall of 1974, while standing at a water fountain, he saw hundreds of idly milling inmates in a whole new way: "Everyone appeared to have the pale of death. And I realized that the pale of death I was seeing on the others was also my own. Suddenly, I was desperate. I admitted I needed help."

That admission opened a testy personal dialogue with God, in which Mr. Davis says God reached out to him while he dug in his spiritual heels: "I wanted to reject God's moral demands, especially that His favor required my submission to the Lord Jesus Christ." But in the end, he tendered a surly, disrespectful surrender. "Okay, God," he remembers saying while lying in his cell bunk. "You say you love me and we both know that I don't love you. You say you want to help me, but I don't believe it. I've never done anything for you. But if you still love me, and still want to help me, then do whatever you can.

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