Save the date. Imprisoned serial killer Charles Manson is slated to get married, his 26-year-old future wife Afton Elaine Burton -- known to the 80-year-old murderer as “Star” -- told the Associated Press in a blockbuster of a twisted love story.
The news of the couple’s pending nuptials has shocked the nation, but the AP reports that it has viewed the Kings County, California, marriage license issued to the couple Nov. 7. Manson and Burton have 90 days to get married and are expected to wed at the prison as early as next month.
The revelation has raised questions about prison marriages, conjugal visits and the weird world of love and matrimony behind bars. While many nonviolent prisoners are not allowed freedoms like ease of movement, a varied wardrobe or access to certain books, one of the most reviled criminals in American history is being allowed to exchange vows with a young woman while in the clink.
The current legal framework surrounding prison marriages has roots in a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The court found in the 1978 case Zablocki v. Redhail that inmates have a constitutional right to marry, and that rules impinging on that right violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Supreme Court built on Zablocki in a 1987 decision, Turner v. Safley, finding that a Missouri regulation requiring prisoners to get their prison superintendents’ permission to marry violated their constitutional rights.
As such, there is very little legal recourse the California prison system can turn to if it were to attempt to stop Manson from taking a wife. But it can bar prisoners from consummating a marriage, as it appears will be the case for Manson.
Manson was sentenced to death in 1971 for the August 1969 murder of Sharon Tate, who was pregnant and married to film director Roman Polanski at the time. He was also charged with the deaths of four houseguests and the separate murders (the day after Tate's killing) of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, according to Rolling Stone. When California abolished the death penalty in 1972, Manson's sentence was converted to life in prison. The state has denied his requests for parole 12 times.
The Manson marriage would not be the first instance of a serial killer getting hitched while behind bars. The so-called Hillside Stranglers, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, both got married while serving sentences for the killing of 10 girls and women in California in 1977 and 1978, according to ABC News. So did “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez while he was on death row in California for murders committed in 1984 and 1985.
No matter how strange, wrong or rare it may seem to a layperson, lockup marriage isn’t unheard of to people familiar with the prison system. But it still often requires someone who is serving time to convince a pen pal, acquaintance or other sympathetic person to take the plunge, or manipulate them into thinking they are in love. Manson fits that profile, as he was notorious for forming a “family” of people who killed for him and carried out his criminal desires.
Psychologist Elaine Aron, the author of "The Highly Sensitive Person in Love," which deals with the topic of manipulation of lovers, told ABC that “[m]any people in jail are sociopaths and they're very good at manipulating people." The New York Times found in 1995 that 544 New York State prison inmates married that year, out of 68,000 in the system.
The Rev. Starlene Joyner Burns provides tips on how to get married to prisoners in the “Weddings Behind Bars" section of her website. “Think creatively and let your imagination run wild until you find something that both of you shared and enjoyed together that can be symbolized through words, song, body language or touch,” she writes. “Get your partner to participate in this creative process. Just because he/she is in lockdown does not mean that he/she has to be disconnected.”
But Burton and Manson might want to tamp down any expectations of a gala affair. They will only be allowed 10 guests plus an officiant to preside over the wedding, and it will be held on a set monthly date, most likely in a visiting room.
"It's not very spectacular," the Rev. Edwin Muller, who has officiated prison weddings at New York’s Eastern Correctional Facility, told The Atlantic of prison marriages. “I don’t recall flowers.”
That lack of romance could impact a marriage, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Married men in prison reach the national 50 percent divorce rate much more quickly than do men in the general population,” the agency wrote in a report on incarceration and families.
Despite these sobering statistics, Burns believes a prison wedding can be a fulfilling opportunity for two people who love one another. “So ladies, don't go out and buy the most revealing dress you can find, because bare skin must be covered” at a prison wedding, Burns advises. “You cannot bring a bouquet, music, cake, gifts (other than the ring), or camera. Costume jewelry will set off the alarm, as well as clothes with metal beads and high heel shoes with nails. You can still be beautiful without the glitter and exposed skin.”