Lawyer, author, and outspoken political commentator Vincent Bugliosi became inextricably connected to the infamous Charles Manson Family during their murder trial in 1970. Bugliosi successfully convinced the court Manson was responsible for the Tate and LaBianca murders, even though he never personally laid a finger on the victims.
In the aftermath of the trial that captivated the US, Bugliosi wrote a book about Manson and the other cases he had prosecuted. While many were quick to criticize the ethics of such a move, the book, Helter Skelter, became the best-selling true crime book in history (a record it still holds as of 2018) and propelled Bugliosi into other endeavors.
While Bugliosi switched focus from prosecution to defense, he kept writing books about highly publicized trials and the people accused of carrying out the acts. OJ Simpson, Lee Harvey Oswald, and even another of his own clients received books detailing their cases and the author's take on their guilt or innocence.
Although Bugliosi passed away from cancer in June of 2015, his legacy lives on in the books he wrote and the world's continued fascination with the madman that first propelled him into the headlines.
On August 9, 1969, the Manson Family murdered actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and several of her friends staying in her home the night of the attack. The very next day, the cult targeted Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. At this time, Bugliosi worked as an assistant district attorney in Los Angeles with 21 convictions and no losses under his belt.
After the arrests of Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, and Linda Kasabian, Bugliosi became the lead prosecutor in the tricky and highly publicized case - all with just five years of experience.
In a retrospective interview, Bugliosi recalled, "I was honored that the DA had enough confidence to assign a case of that magnitude and complexity to me. I worked on it around the clock, seven days a week, sometimes 80 or 90 hours."
The Manson Family trial lasted about nine months from the time of jury selection to the final arguments and verdict. During that time, Bugliosi often worked 80 to 90 hours per week on the case to ensure the conviction of not only the three family members who carried out the acts, but also their leader who never physically touched any of the victims.
A fifth member of the Family, Linda Kasabian, was arrested along with the other women present at the Tate and LaBianca slayings. However, Kasabian flipped on the cult and agreed to testify as Bugliosi's star witness during the trial in exchange for immunity. Bugliosi's deal with Kasabian was perhaps the most damning bit of prosecutorial evidence against Manson, as her testimony detailed the Family's inability to ignore their leader's commands. During her 17 to 18 days of questioning, Kasabian painted a picture of obedience and complete trust in Manson - even if the orders were to kill.
In the end, Bugliosi secured convictions against Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten for the slaying. All were sentenced to death by gas chamber in 1971, but the next year brought an end to the death penalty in the state of California. Because of this, all of their sentences were changed to life imprisonment; Manson died in prison in November 2017.
The first time they met, Bugliosi was shocked by Manson's small stature (the cult leader was allegedly five foot two inches tall), but the threat he held as the leader of a cult programed to kill for him was undeniable. During the many months of the trial, Bugliosi was constantly trailed by a bodyguard.
Members of the Manson Family camped outside the court during the course of the trial, presenting a very real risk to the prosecutor. Manson himself remained a threat inside the courtroom, as evidenced by Bugliosi's account of one of the cult leader's more violent displays:
One day, Manson got a hold of a sharp pencil and, from a standing position, he leaps over the counsel table and starts to approach the judge, and of course the bailiffs immediately tackle him, and he shouted out to the judge, 'In the name of Christian justice, I want to chop off your head.' The judge started carrying a .38-caliber revolver under his robe in court. One of the defense attorneys vanished from the face of the earth during the trial and turned up dead.
In November of 1968, The Beatles released the White Album, including a song called "Helter Skelter" Manson became obsessed with. According to Bugliosi, in Manson's mind The Beatles were presenting the idea of a race-fueled conflict he needed to start:
To Manson, helter-skelter meant a war between whites and blacks that the Beatles were in favor of. When the album first came out, in December of '68, he got a copy, and he came racing back to the ranch all excited and said, 'The Beatles are telling it like it is! The sh*t is coming down!' It was this war that he felt he could ignite by killing white people and blaming black militants, this war called helter-skelter.
Bugliosi further explained Manson saw Blacks emerging victorious from the conflict before handing over power to the cult.