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.
Bugliosi wrote or co-wrote several books, including some that are famous (Helter Skelter) and others that were less well known but equally compelling (And the Sea Will Tell). I read them all — up until the 2000s, when his books became ore about wild political claims than the detailed and compelling narratives he had previously written. (I’m going to ignore those in this post and concentrate on the many positive aspects of the man’s life.)
I admired Bugliosi greatly as a prosecutor. His tenaciousness and preparation were a role model for any Deputy D.A., especially one working in Los Angeles. One day I was looking at the dust jacket on one of Bugliosi’s book, and I realized that I had tried (and obtained convictions in) more murder cases than Bugliosi. It was a jarring but proud moment that felt like one of the larger milestones of my career, to realize that in some sense I had measured up to someone I had idolized.
That said, few if any will ever match Bugliosi’s nearly undefeated record in felony trials generally, a record that says something about the forcefulness and persuasiveness of his manner. Bugliosi was always dead convinced of his position, but he didn’t simply win through attitude and bluster. If you had an issue with the prosecution’s version of events, he would come back and knock you in the head with, not one, not two, but a good five reasons why that objection was ridiculous. And his reasons would make sense. And he would proceed to destroy your other arguments in the same way.
Bugliosi accomplished something important with the prosecution of Charles Manson — a feat which may seem easy in retrospect, given Manson’s evident criminal lunacy on display in prison, but which actually required detailed investigation and a clear, meticulous presentation. Remember, Manson wasn’t even at the scene of the Tate murders, and did not kill anyone personally in the LaBianca murders.
I attended a book signing for “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” which is essentially the Bible of the Kennedy assassination. I can’t claim to have read it all, but I have looked up the passages addressing some of the more common conspiracy theories. Each is comprehensively addressed in Bugliosi’s withering, fact-based style.
I had the good fortune to attend a book signing for this book when it came out. My mom was in town, and we both watched Bugliosi address the questions from the conspiracy theorists who formed an unsettlingly large part of the audience. They seemed unhinged, and I frankly worried for his safety. Still, it was the closest thing conceivable to personally watching him in trial. He had a full command of all the facts and let them have it between the eyes every time.
I once wrote Bugliosi a letter asking where I could find the full-length version of the mock trial of Lee Harvey Oswald that he did with Gerry Spence. He wrote me back a two-page handwritten note that I still have somewhere, saying that he would lend it to me, but he was using it to write “Reclaiming History.” (I ended up purchasing an abbreviated version on DVD that I commend to anyone interested in watching Bugliosi the trial attorney in action, and/or to anyone interested in the Kennedy assassination. Bugliosi and Spence question many of the actual witnesses from the case, and it truly is a slice of history.)
I can’t immediately find that note, which I still have somewhere, but tonight, if I can figure out how to keep the image from being on its side, I’ll update the post with the signature page from my copy of “Reclaiming History.” (I’ll put the sideways version I have now in the comments.)
UPDATE: Here is the beginning of that mock trial. It’s worth watching.