As a prosecutor for the Los Angeles District Attorney's office for eight years, Vincent Bugliosi tried nearly 1,000 felony and misdemeanor cases, losing just one of his 106 felony jury trials. His most famous trial was the Charles Manson case, which became the basis of his best-selling book "Helter Skelter" and the subsequent 1976 TV movie of the same name.
The new NBC thriller, " 'Till Death Us Do Part," is adapted from Bugliosi's 1978 account of a controversial 1967 murder case in which he found himself pitted against Alan Palliko (played by Treat Williams), a former Los Angeles police officer turned con man who was charged with the murders of his girlfriend's husband and his own wife in order to collect on their life insurance polices. Though Bugliosi (played by Arliss Howard) was convinced from the outset that Palliko was guilty, he only had circumstantial evidence to go on.
Bugliosi discussed " 'Till Death" with TV Times Staff Writer Susan King.
You had been working a few years at the D.A.'s office when you were assigned the Alan Palliko case. Was it one of your most difficult cases because there was only circumstantial evidence?
I had handled quite a few murder cases before, but this was, I think, my most difficult case. There were no eyewitnesses, which is not that uncommon, but in addition to having no eyewitnesses, there were no fingerprints. The murder weapon for both murders was never found. There was not one single piece of physical evidence of any kind whatsoever connecting the defendants to the crime.
So someone almost perpetrated the perfect murder here. What it came down to was a classic textbook case of circumstantial evidence. It was my job to place one speck of circumstantial evidence upon another to where I could ultimately argue to the jury that there was a mosaic of guilt.
When this case first happened, UPI captioned it "The Late Show Comes to Life," and they tried to show the similarities between this case and the movie classic "Double Indemnity."
Both the movie and this case happened in Los Angeles. (In the movie) Fred MacMurray was an insurance agent and Alan Palliko was an insurance investigator for the Auto Club. In both cases the killer conspires with his paramour, who was a bored housewife, to kill her husband, and in both cases it was for double indemnity insurance. The thought entered my mind, although we dismissed it rather quickly, that they were trying to act out the movie. This case went further because two spouses were murdered and (there were) several attempted murders of a third spouse.
Palliko was sentenced to death. He had his sentence of death commuted to life imprisonment in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court commuted death sentences nationwide. He is in San Quentin Prison in Northern California for life.
Is this type of case frustrating because you have so little to go on?
I just get the feeling that it is just a matter of time and I am going to get the evidence, but I have to first satisfy myself that they are guilty. I work 100 hours a week on some of these cases and talk to people over and over. I just feel very, very confident that it is just a matter of time and I am going to do it.
How did your writing career happen? Did you decide to write "Helter Skelter" or did a publisher approach you?
I was approached midway through the trial by a literary agent. I said I was not interested because I am not a professional writer and I let it go at that. Near the end of the trial, a couple of books came out. The verdict hadn't come in yet and they were saying they were the definitive book on the case.
The trial ended and there was no one of any stature, like a (Joseph) Wambaugh or a (Truman) Capote, doing a book on the case. It was at that point the fellow came back to me and I said, "I guess someone should do this."
Are you working on a book now?
You are probably going to smirk when I say this, but I am writing a book about the Kennedy assassination. There have been enough books, but they are all pro-conspiracy. I got involved in the Kennedy thing in 1986 when London Weekend Television asked me to "prosecute" Oswald in a docu-trial in London. (It aired here on Showtime.) We handled it like a real trial. We had the real witnesses. The jury convicted Oswald. I feel there has got to be a book on the other side now. My personal belief is that Oswald acted alone.
Do you still find time to handle criminal cases?
I practice very little now. The reasons I don't handle many cases is I am not a law-and-order fanatic. Law and justice mean a lot more to me. I believe if a person has committed a serious crime like murder, they should be severely punished.
I don't want to be a part of that process that deliberately tries to frustrate justice, so what I do is I do my own investigations, and if it appears the party is guilty I routinely refer these cases to other lawyers. I have to add a very important footnote that if I am the only lawyer around I would defend whoever came to me, no matter how guilty, no matter how heinous the crime, because of the right to counsel. But in L.A. there are about 40,000 lawyers so there is no problem of the right to counsel.
" 'Till Death Us Do Part" airs Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC.