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Taking on Charles Manson

No matter what else he does, the lawyer and author will always be known for prosecuting the infamous murder case.

August 08, 2009

Vincent Bugliosi has moved on, but the world hasn't. Forty years after the impossibly grisly Tate-LaBianca murders, he is still "the Manson prosecutor." This, in spite of his many books since, arguing with magisterial fury about the JFK assassination, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Bush vs. Gore case and now the Iraq war.

His book about the murders masterminded by Charles Manson, "Helter Skelter," written with coauthor Curt Gentry, hasn't been out of print since it appeared in 1974. It's blurbed as the bestselling true-crime book of all time, at what Bugliosi figures is about 7 million copies. His 2007 JFK book, "Reclaiming History," got its start in a 1986 mock trial on television, in which Bugliosi prosecuted Lee Harvey Oswald, using actual assassination witnesses, and proved that Oswald alone killed the president. It has sold considerably fewer copies than "Helter Skelter," but, as he says, "if you want to make money, you don't put out a book that weighs 7 1/2 pounds and costs $57 and has over 10,000 citations and a million and a half words."

Bugliosi still writes voluminously -- and without a computer -- but he's had to put down his pen for the moment because journalists like me are swarming around, asking for his insights, 40 years on, about the 1969 slaughters, now known the world over as the Manson murders, and their chief instigator, the hideously and evidently perpetually fascinating Charles Manson.

Aren't you tired of people asking about Manson?

I've actually had a copilot come out of the cockpit on a trip from L.A. to New York and ask me about Charles Manson. I was at a book convention, in a cab -- on one side of me was Arthur Schlesinger, on the other side was William Manchester, real heavyweights. All they were doing was asking me about Charles Manson. The only thing that enables me not to be bored is the people talking about it -- they're so interested. The durability of this case is just incredible.

Why? There have been more prolific murderers and gorier killings since then.

Many factors. The single most important is that the murders were probably the most bizarre in American crime, and people are fascinated by things that are strange and bizarre. It's not the brutality -- they were extremely brutal murders, but like you say, there have been more brutal murders. Not the prominence of the victims. Another reason -- the very name "Manson" has become a metaphor for evil, and evil has its allure.

So he's become the Hitler of murderers, by which all other murderers are measured?

You said it -- I can't say that. Just one [example] among many: Mike Tyson's applying for renewing his boxing license before the boxing commission in Nevada. He says, "Look, I'm a bad guy, but I'm not Charles Manson." His name is used in that context. Now [O.J.] Simpson -- you don't hear [that] about the Simpson case. It was kind of a garden-variety case. The Manson case just never ends.

What do you make of the enduring cottage industry of Manson shirts, music, posters?

He's got this image, almost a glamorous outlaw type, an anti-establishment figure, like Dillinger or Jesse James, but [kids] really don't know who he is. They don't know how evil he is. I think if they really knew who Manson was, they would not be wearing those shirts.

In 1972, the Supreme Court overturned the death penalty, including those in the Manson case. Are you sorry he and the others weren't executed?

Well, that would have been the proper sentence. The execution of a condemned man is a terrible thing, but murder is an even more terrible thing. They deserved to die, these people, and I asked for the death penalty and I would do so again. I don't know if "sorry" is a good word -- I'm disappointed, of course, particularly with respect to Manson.

Yet you also supported Manson family member Susan Atkins' parole request not long ago, and got a lot of grief for it.

The visceral response would be, "Well, she showed no mercy so she gets no mercy." But there are several things which militate against that easy conclusion. She's already paid substantially for her crime, close to 40 years behind bars. She has terminal cancer. The mercy she was asking for is so minuscule. She's about to die. It's not like we're going to see her down at Disneyland.

If you were writing your own Wikipedia entry, what would you put first?

I guess it would be [Manson]. It's a shorthand way of defining me, no matter what else I do. 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.

What are you proudest of?

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