Vincent Bugliosi: The Legacy

June 12, 2015 Books

Vince Bugliosi, who first achieved fame as the Manson Family prosecutor and then as a first rate author, died June 6, 2015. His true legacy is the books he left behind. Too obsessive and detailed for the casual reader but perfect for us. The Lee Bailey, Gerry Spence and Bugliosi trial-centric books are major sources for learning the business of trying cases.

Bugliosi started as an Deputy DA in Los Angeles and was assigned to prosecute Charles Manson and his gang. The investigation and trial was the highlight of his career and became the subject of his most famous book.

I admired Bugliosi because of his obsessive personality; good for trial work, not so good for relationships. Thus the high lawyer divorce rate. He told me he spent 100 hours preparing every final argument. If another lawyer claimed that I would have doubts; but with Vince I believe it. His obsessive, almost manic, attention to detail comes across in all his writings. The best example is the Kennedy assassination book which took twenty years to write and consumes 1,648 pages.

I knew him in passing; only brief conversations at seminars where we both presented. Vince not only wrote engaging books, but drew detailed descriptions of the courtroom scenes and trial strategy. Many of his readers disliked his obsessive courtroom detail but it neatly fits our needs. We sharpen our trial skills using the best texts on legal advocacy. His books are worthy of study:

Helter Skelter Book Cover1. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (1974)

With over seven million copies sold, it is the best selling true crime book of all time. It is rivaled only by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” This was long before televised trials and the public was hungry for an inside look at the trial. One reason I became engrossed in the story was the coincidence of the verdict on January 25, 1971; I had just started as a Public Defender 20 days before on January 5th. For a young trial lawyer the trial was a blockbuster. Bugliosi knew this was the case of a lifetime and he worked it. He secretly hired true crime writer Curt Gentry to help him draft the book during the trial. I wonder how crafting the book at the same time affected his trial strategy.

Bugliosi takes the reader through the murders, the manhunt, the capture, the struggle to build his case, and finally the trial. One of the flaws in his analysis is that he criticizes everyone (especially the homicide detectives) and heaps praise on himself. Trial lawyer hubris makes them unwilling to admit they are less than perfect. When the author’s ego permeates so much of the action, the reader is unsure how much to believe.

On the evening of August 9, 1969, a murderous cult invaded the Benedict Canyon mansion of actress Sharon Tate and her director husband Roman Polanski. Polanski was out of the country so he was spared the violence but a number of his friends were not so lucky. Lucky is hardly the right word; Polanski’s life plunged since then with sex charges hanging over his head in LA and permanently consigned to exile.

As a result of Charles Manson’s warped mind, these seven people were brutally tortured and killed August 1969 in California. It is hard to visualize the butchery of these crimes:

1) Sharon Tate-Polanski (age 26), actress/model/international beauty, was eight-months pregnant when she was stabbed 16 times then hung from a living room rafter. They wrote “PIG” on the wall in her blood. This must have shaken Roman Polanski to his core.

2) Abigail Folger (age 25) was stabbed 28 times.

3) Voytek Frykowski (age 32) stabbed a total of 51 times, shot twice, and beaten over the head 13 times with a blunt object. The savagery of his killing still sickens today.

4) Jay Sebring (age 35) was shot once with Manson’s very own “Buntline” revolver and stabbed seven times.

5) Steven Parent (only 18) was the first to die. The teenager was shot four times in his car as he was trying to leave the Tate property.

6) Leno LaBianca (age 44). Manson had personally tied up Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca with rope inside their home at 3301 Waverly Drive in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, and then sent in his cult to kill them both. Leno was stabbed 12 times with a knife and was stabbed another 7 times with a fork. A knife was found lodged in Mr. LaBianca’s throat, and the word “war” had been physically carved into Leno’s stomach, while the double-tined fork used to create that word in the flesh of the victim was left protruding from Mr. LaBianca’s abdomen.

7) Rosemary LaBianca (age 38) was stabbed with a knife 41 separate times. Both of the LaBiancas were found with pillowcases over their heads.

The trial of Manson and three female followers, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, lasted 9½ months. Bugliosi set the tone in his opening and closing arguments, denouncing Manson as a murderous cult leader and his followers as young killers willing to do his bidding. He called the women “robots” and “zombies,” manipulated by Manson — “a dictatorial maharajah of a tribe of bootlicking slaves.” In the middle of the trial Manson had the “girls” as he called them carve X’s in their foreheads and shaved their heads. Ironically graphically illustrating Bugliosi’s argument.

The trial was packed full of bizarre moments. The defendants themselves were so strange, so odd, so malicious and without remorse, that everything they did was of interest. The defendants taunted Bugliosi, jumping up and singing in court or grabbing at his papers on his lectern. Manson tried to stab Judge Charles Older with a sharpened pencil. The trial went on for so long that one defense lawyer disappeared and was found dead in the woods. Bugliosi claimed foul play but none was found.

Aside from the graphic nature of the crimes, messages had been printed in blood. One was misspelled: “Healter Skelter.” Bugliosi used this to propose the theory that Manson was inspired to violence by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter,” which Manson thought predicted a race war that he and his followers would lead. Bugliosi explains, “all murders have a motive,” and when he saw “Healter Skelter” written in blood at the LaBiancas, he used it as his trial theme.

Bugliosi was a trial lawyer who never put less than a maximum amount of effort into his trial plans, and his account of the strategy and tactics is a masterpiece. Bugliosi had an eye for details that at first seemed unimportant, he also has the ability to articulate the main points of the case in a manner easily understood by someone unfamiliar with criminal law–a rare combination.

Both Helter Skelter and his subsequent book Till Death Us Do Part won Edgar Allan Poe Awards for best true-crime book of the year. Helter Skelter became two made-for-TV movies in 1976 and 2004.

And the Sea Will Tell Book Cover2. And the Sea Will Tell (1991)

Part 1 is an account of a couple who sailed to an uninhabited tropical atoll to get away from it all and ended up getting murdered by a crazed fugitive. The American dream/nightmare all in one. Bugliosi describes in vivid detail the setting and characters. Photos of the people involved and maps of the island make this an even more riveting read. Part 2 is the story of the subsequent criminal proceedings. Bugliosi was retained to defend the murderer’s girlfriend in a separate trial. What makes it a great story is that the defense faced overwhelming obstacles and was at times on the brink of losing.

Bugliosi describes the events leading up to the trial, his queasy ruminations about his client’s innocence (even though he swears he just knew that she was innocent) and his battles with the judge and prosecutor. Details of the murders are revealed just like they came out in trial. He spends many pages on his pre-trial prep, and his tactics during the trial. It reads like a transcript of hundreds of pages of trial. Perfect for us.

Once again the true crime addicts claim too much trial but that was who he was, a trial tactician. And that is why I like them and recommend you read them.

No Island of Sanity Book Cover3. No Island of Sanity: Paula Jones v. Bill Clinton: The Supreme Court on Trial (1998)

Bugliosi berates the Supreme Court for its decision in Jones v. Clinton. This short book is written like a supreme court brief. Lawyers will enjoy the legal arguments. Bugliosi makes a convincing case that the decision was a tragic mistake, a travesty of justice that threatened to alter the balance of power in the three branches of government, and may do untold harm in the future. He uses the federalist papers as a basis to conclude that the founders could not have intended for a federal district judge to have the power to compel a sitting president to answer a civil suit. Not only that, but he argues a sitting president could not even be arrested for murder without first being impeached and removed from office.

Even a soldier undergoing basic training enjoys “temporary immunity” from lawsuits, but not the President after this decision. The Court proposes that defending the civil suit would not take away time from the presidency. We now know how absurd that prediction was. The lawsuit was a political assault on Clinton. In the zealousness to “get” Bill Clinton, the Court allowed a dangerous legal precedent to be set — that a sitting President can be subjected to a civil lawsuit.

Proseution of George Bush for Murder4. The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder (2008)

Bugliosi presents the case against George W. Bush in this book and a documentary called The Prosecution of an American President. He argues the precedent of pardoning of Richard Nixon by Gerald Ford caused Obama not to consider charging Bush. The standing president must ignore the crimes of his predecessor. Barack Obama said in 2009 before he even officially took office: “We need to look forward, as opposed to looking backwards.”

Bugliosi argues that the Obama administration is simply looking the other way on Bush’s war crimes. It’s absurd to say that holding criminals accountable for murder is “looking backwards”; by that logic, no criminals should ever be tried for crimes they’ve committed. I would also add that failing to investigate presidential crimes does violence to our cherished belief that no one is above the law. Clearly that is no longer true.

Bugliosi writes we need “some courageous prosecutor” to demand justice and to charge George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for their lies and the murders of 4,500 American soldiers and over half a million Iraqis.

Reclaiming History Book Cover5. Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007)

At 1,648 pages of excruciating detail, Bugliosi proves beyond any doubt there was no conspiracy and that Oswald worked alone. The book defies any attempt to summarize it, but suffice it to say it is a minute, sometimes brilliant, examination of the evidence as only Bugliosi can do. The benefit for lawyers is to illustrate the ability to closely examine data and draw convincing conclusions.

Other Bugliosi books which describe legal proceedings:

Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O. J. Simpson Got Away with Murder
Till Death Us Do Part: A True Murder Mystery
The Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President

Why we read books like the ones written by Bugliosi, is captured by the ancient philosopher Epictetus:
“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a terrible mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”