June 10, 2015

Hail & Farewell: Vincent Bugliosi, author of Helter Skelter, prosecutor of Charles Manson, and outspoken critic of George W. Bush


A still from The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, a documentary based on Bugliosi's book of the same name.

A still from The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, a documentary based on Bugliosi’s book of the same name.

On Saturday, the attorney and bestselling author Vincent Bugliosi died of cancer at age 80. Bugliosi was best known as the man who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson—and deservedly so. Although Manson has become synonymous with evil over the past five decades, winning a murder conviction was no cake walk. Per The New York Times‘s obituary:

One of his challenges was to convince the jury that Mr. Manson was just as guilty as the knife-wielders and shooters — even though he did not physically participate — since he had inspired them and sent them on their missions. The other defendants were Ms. [Susan] AtkinsPatricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, all in their early 20s.

“I hadn’t realized how small he was,” Mr. Bugliosi wrote of seeing the 5-foot-2 Mr. Manson for the first time. “I could not believe that this little guy had done all the things it was said he had. He was not only capable of committing murder himself, he also possessed the incredible power to command others to kill for him.”

The trial transformed life not only for Mr. Bugliosi but for also his wife, Gail, and their young children, Vincent Jr. and Wendy. He worked 100 hours a week and was accompanied by a bodyguard everywhere he went.

The trial, one of the longest criminal proceedings in American history, began in June 1970 and ended on Jan. 25, 1971, with the conviction of the four of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Two months later, the jurors decided that they should die in the gas chamber. But the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s death penalty in 1972, just months before the United States Supreme Court held that capital punishment as it was then administered was unconstitutional. The killers were resentenced to life in prison.

Bugliosi resigned from the Los Angeles County prosecutor’s office in 1972; in 1974, he wrote Helter Skelter, an account of Manson’s crimes and their aftermath. A masterpiece of the true crime genre, Helter Skelter sold seven million copies and went on to win an Edgar Award. Bugliosi would go on to win two more Edgar Awards: for Till Death Do Us Part, his account of a 1966 double murder, in 1979 and for Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a 1,648 page tome that questioned dominant narratives.

For better and for worse, Bulgiosi would always be defined by his connection to Manson, but that connection obscures much of Bugliosi’s work after 1974, particularly his political writing—much of it with small, independent presses, much of it bestselling, and much of it notably unmentioned in his obituaries. For example, there’s his 2001 book, The Betrayal of America, published by Nation Books. The subtitle says it all: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose a President. It was the burning question in the first half of 2001, one of those things everyone was talking about on the streets while seemingly no one was in the media, and so Bugliosi’s book, like Noam Chomsky’s 9/11 several months later, had explosive, if largely unreported, sales.

And in 2008, the one-time Democratic candidate for California state attorney general lifted another wide-scale murmur to a roar with The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. In it, Bugliosi argues that Bush should be put on trial for the murder of soldiers in Iraq.

From The Prosecution of George W. Bush For Murder by Vincent Bugliosi, page 168.

“I hope that at some time in the near future a courageous U.S. attorney general, U.S. attorney, state attorney general, or district attorney in America who is committed to the rule of law and who has dedicated his career to enforcing the law fairly against all who, big or small, violate it, will hear the cries for justice from the graves of the thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children who had their lives violently cut short because of the lies of a man who smiled through it all. And that, with a sense of uncompromising righteousness, he will take the ample case I have laid out in this book before an American jury to let them decide whether George W Bush is guilty or not guilty of murder, and if so, what his punishment should be.”

Although the book was a bestseller, as he told the New York Times in 2008, it was mostly ignored by mainstream media.

His publisher and publicist said they had expected that Mr. Bugliosi’s credentials would ensure coverage — he is, after all, fairly mainstream. His last book, a 1,612-page volume on the Kennedy assassination, “Reclaiming History,” which was published last year, sought to debunk the conspiracy theorists. It is being made into a 10-hour miniseries byHBO and the actor Tom Hanks.

Mr. Bugliosi said bookers for cable television, where he has made regular appearances to promote books, have ignored his latest offering. MSNBC and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” were two outlets Mr. Bugliosi had thought would show interest, but neither did.

“They are not responding at all,” he said. “I think it all goes back to fear. If the liberal media would put me on national television, I think they’d fear that they would be savaged by the right wing. The left wing fears the right, but the right does not fear the left.”

If you want to know more about The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder,  you can read an excerpt here, watch a trailer for the documentary the book inspired, or listen to Bugliosi himself talk about it on Book TV.