Vincent Bugliosi: Lawyer who prosecuted the Manson Family and wrote the best-selling book 'Helter Skelter' about the case

He took on controversial subjects including Outrage: The Five Reasons Why OJ Simpson Got Away With Murder, and The Prosecution of George W Bush for Murder

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The Independent Online

Vincent Bugliosi was the prosecutor who parlayed his handling of the Charles Manson murder trial into a career as a best-selling author, best known for Helter Skelter, his account of the murder of Sharon Tate and six others by followers of Charles Manson.

Bugliosi was an unknown Los Angeles deputy district attorney on 9 August 1969, when the bodies of Tate, the actress wife of Roman Polanski, and four others were discovered at her home in Laurel Canyon. They had been savagely killed by assailants who had left bloody scrawlings on the walls and door. The others were the celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring; coffee heiress Abigail Folger; Polish film director Voityck Frykowksi; Tate, who was eight and a half months pregnant; and Steven Parent, the friend of a caretaker.

The following night two more mutilated bodies were found across town in another well-to-do neighbourhood. The crime scene was marked with the same bloody graffiti – "Pigs" and "Rise" and "Helter Skelter." The victims were Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, a dress shop owner and supermarket executive who had no connection to Tate.

Bugliosi was one of those assigned to the team of prosecutors. When members of the rag tag Manson Family were caught and charged with the crimes months later, a more veteran prosecutor, Aaron Stovitz, was named head of the district attorney's team and Bugliosi was assigned the second chair. But before long, a dispute arose between Stovitz and his boss over a remark he made to the media. He was removed from the case and the intense, ambitious Bugliosi stepped into the role of a lifetime.

The trial of Manson and three female followers, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, lasted more than nine months and became a courtroom drama to rival any cinematic trial.

Bugliosi set the tone in his opening statement and closing argument, denouncing Manson as a murderous cult leader and his followers as young killers willing to do his bidding. He called the women "robots" and "zombies," manipulated by Manson – "a dictatorial maharajah of a tribe of bootlicking slaves." He proposed the theory that Manson was inspired to violence by the Beatles song "Helter Skelter" from "the White Album" which the cult leader thought predicted a race war that Manson and his followers would foment.

Determined to show the breadth of the Manson Family's reach, Bugliosi called 84 witnesses, most of them a parade of disaffected young people who joined up with Manson and fell under his sway. The trial became an exploration of the cult and its drug and sex-fuelled adoration of Manson whom members venerated as Jesus. It heralded for many the death of the Sixties: Flower Power was over and the hippie dream of peace and love was dead.

"Before the murders, no one associated hippies with violence and murder, just drugs, peace, free love, etc," Bugliosi said in 2009. "Then the Manson Family comes along, looking like hippies, but what they were all about was murder. That was their religion, their credo. That shocked a lot of people and definitely hurt the counterculture movement."

At times, the defendants taunted the prosecutor, jumping up and singing or grabbing at his papers on his lectern. The trial went on for so long that a defence lawyer disappeared and was found dead in the woods. Bugliosi maintained there was foul play but none was found. Manson was convicted and sentenced to death, a sentence commuted to life in prison when California suspended the death penalty.

Bugliosi was born in 1934 in Hibbing, Minnesota. He attended the University of Miami at Coral Gables, Florida, on a tennis scholarship and graduated from the law school of the University of California, Los Angeles.

After the Manson trial, he wrote Helter Skelter with Curt Gentry (1974) and it became one of the bestselling crime books of all time. He tried running for public office but lost, tried his hand at practising defence law but ultimately returned to writing books. He wrote a dozen, including the true-crime books, Till Death Do Us Part, and And The Sea Will Tell, both of which chronicle double murders, the latter on a Pacific atoll

He took on increasingly controversial subjects, including Outrage: The Five Reasons Why OJ Simpson Got Away With Murder, and The Prosecution of George W Bush for Murder, which held the US president criminally responsible for the deaths of more than 4,000 soldiers in Iraq. Bugliosi's son Vincent said his father was most proud of his nearly 2,000-page examination of the assassination of John F Kennedy, Reclaiming History, which took more than 20 years to write.

But Bugliosi, who died of cancer, remained most associated with the Manson case. Reflecting on it 40 years later, he said, "These murders were probably the most bizarre in the recorded annals of American crime ... Evil has its lure and Manson has become a metaphor for evil."

Vincent Bugliosi, lawyer and author: born Hibbing, Minnesota 18 August 1934; married Gail (one daughter, one son); died Los Angeles 6 June 2015.