Opinion

Taking on Charles Manson

Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeHomicideArts and CultureHistoryDeathCharles Manson

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?

Certainly my magnum opus, "Reclaiming History." It's the most important murder case in American history. I put the best of what I know as a prosecutor into that book. It was just moonshine, these conspiracies. All these allegations made no sense whatsoever, so I decided to set the record straight. Oswald killed Kennedy. He acted alone. Because of these conspiracy theorists who split hairs and proceeded to split the split hairs, this case has been transformed into the most complex murder case in world history. But, at its core, it's a simple case.

"The Betrayal of America," attacking the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in the disputed 2000 presidential election -- not at first blush a case for a criminal prosecutor.

I'm not a political activist. But whenever something is so egregious, I jump in. Even many Republican scholars [said], "The court should be ashamed of itself; we've lost respect for the court." And I kept saying, "That's all? You lost respect?" These five [justices] are among the biggest criminals in American history. How dare these people have the audacity to do what they did? I think I made my case pretty well that these people deliberately tried to steal the election.

And now your latest book, "The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder," published in May, makes a murder case against Bush for waging war unnecessarily and shows how he could be prosecuted for it.

Bush [told] unsuspecting Americans the exact opposite of what his own federal intelligence agencies told him. What could be more criminal than the Bush administration keeping the all-important conclusion from Congress and the American people, with the lives of millions in the balance?

Every day, I think of those people in their graves now -- no one is fighting for them. You can see that I'm upset. I don't like to see anyone get away with murder. O.J. Simpson got away with two, and I wrote the book "Outrage." If I can get that angry over one or two murders, you can imagine the way I feel about Bush.

Some people must have said, "Bugliosi's gone off the deep end on this one."

Jerry Brown called me: "I understand you have a book out about Bush, about impeachment," and I said, "No, Jerry, it's about murder."

My first challenge was to see if a president taking the nation to war on a lie fell within the conventional principles of criminal law, and I've come up with very solid evidence that it does. There are many sophisticated issues, but here's the main issue. I've established jurisdiction, federal and local. If a prosecutor could prove that Bush took this nation to war under false pretenses, then these killings of American soldiers in Iraq would become unlawful and therefore murder.

I get the feeling you wish reporters were coming to your door to talk about your Bush book instead of Manson.

Oh, absolutely. I would much prefer to talk about this, but people don't want to.

You have a theory about why the book didn't get much press.

I had a very difficult time getting this book published, and I've never had trouble getting a book published. I couldn't get on any networks, no cable. Everyone has been terrified to talk about this. My only master, my only mistress, is the facts. If a Democratic president had done this, I would have written the same identical book, so it has nothing to do with politics. I'm 95% sure the left in this country is terrified of the right. The right has no fear of the left -- the left is terrified of the right.

What do you think of televising trials?

We should not televise trials. There's only one purpose for a criminal trial. It's to determine whether or not the defendant committed the crime. Anything that interferes or has the potential of interfering with that should automatically be prohibited. The idea of education is nonsense. Televise an automobile-collision case or breach-of-contract case and see how many people watch. It's all about entertainment.

patt.morrison@latimes.com. This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Patt Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.

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