The man who prosecuted one of the most notorious American criminals of the 20th century before writing the definitive history of those crimes is gone.
Vincent Bugliosi, who put Charles Manson behind bars, has died of cancer at 80.
“He was a workaholic,” his son, Vincent Bugliosi Jr., said, as NBC 4 in Los Angeles reported. “What was remarkable was he always found time for everyone who needed work.”
Bugliosi’s track record as a Los Angeles prosecutor was remarkable: convictions in 105 of 106 felony jury trials, including 21 murder cases. So were his later achievements as an author writing “Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O. J. Simpson Got Away with Murder” and producing the definitive, 1,600-page doorstop that proves Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
But it is Manson’s name that will be in the headlines of the lawyer’s obituary.
“It’s a shorthand way of defining me, no matter what else I do,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. “I can no more separate myself than I can jump away from my own shadow, and it tends to dominate the other things I’ve done.”
Bugliosi seemed an unlikely cultural figure in the age of Aquarius. In freewheeling, hippie-ridden California, he was a D.A., not a member of the Beach Boys’ entourage.
But when an affiliate of that entourage — Manson, who wrote a song the Beach Boys later reworked — decided the Beatles were sending him messages about a coming race war and manipulated his “family” into murdering actress Sharon Tate, Leno LaBianca and Rosemary LaBianca, among others, in 1969, it was Bugliosi who brought him to justice.
Though Manson, more than four decades later, is synonymous with evil, the case Bugliosi had to marshal against the man and his fellow conspirators at Spahn Ranch was complicated. Seven murders; arcane, insane interpretations of Beatles lyrics; defendants who carved swastikas on to their foreheads and often tried to disrupt court proceedings. These were crimes that made no sense. Moreover, Manson hadn’t actually killed anyone himself but was only implicated because he was behind the plot.
“Even if Charles Manson was merely a member, just a member of this conspiracy to commit these murders, and never killed anyone, he would still be guilty of all seven murders, but here he is not only a member, he is a leader, the leading force behind all of these conspiracies,” Bugliosi told the jury. “Charles Manson is a clever fellow all right.”
Manson was convicted and sentenced to death — a sentence later commuted to life in prison when California suspended the death penalty.
Bugliosi was proud of his work.
“I was honored that the D.A. had enough confidence to assign a case of that magnitude and complexity to me,” Bugliosi later said. “I worked on it around the clock, seven days a week, sometimes 80 or 90 hours. The trial was almost as bizarre as the murders themselves. One day, Manson got a hold of a sharp pencil and, from a standing position, he leaps over the counsel table and starts to approach the judge, and of course the bailiffs immediately tackle him, and he shouted out to the judge, ‘In the name of Christian justice, I want to chop off your head.'”
But in some ways, Manson’s conviction was merely a prelude.
The world heard the details of the family’s murders as they were revealed in court. But, published in 1974, it was Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter” — a tome that still sits, often well-worn, on bookshelves across America — that defined Manson for history. This is a book that shaped true-crime writing as much as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” a classic that it claims to outsell.
Bugliosi’s dramatic prose helped.
“It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon,” the book begins.
Running almost 700 pages, it never really stops. Bugliosi’s attention to every last detail — from the sad life stories of the killers to the violence they inflicted on their victims — is relentless. The book was adapted for television two times, and its take on Manson can be seen as recently as “Aquarius,” a David Duchovny show airing this summer.
And partly because of “Helter Skelter,” Manson became a symbol of the end of the 1960s — as much a part of the collapse of peace, love and understanding as Vietnam and Altamont.
“Before the murders, no one associated hippies with violence and murder, just drugs, peace, free love, etc.,” Bugliosi told Time in 2009. “Then the Manson Family comes along, looking like hippies, but what they were all about was murder. That was their religion, their credo. That shocked a lot of people and definitely hurt the counterculture movement.”