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Vincent Bugliosi, The Man Who Prosecuted Charles Manson, Dies At 80

Former Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill July 25, 2008. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Vincent Bugliosi, the man most famous for prosecuting the Manson Family in the Tate-LaBianca killings, died Saturday in a Los Angeles hospital from cancer at age 80.

The cancer that Bugliosi beat three years ago had returned and metastastized, his wife of 59 years Gail told the Los Angeles Times. Funeral plans have yet to be announced.

Bugliosi was a prosecutor who won the convictions of Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten in 1971 during the nearly 10-month circus that was the Charles Manson trial. (Charles “Tex” Watson was tried separately.) The Manson family's victims in 1969 included a pregnant Sharon Tate, and four other people with her: Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steven Parent. That same night grocery chain owners Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were also tied up, tortured and killed inside their home.

The trial cost the county a record $1 million. During the trial, Manson lunged at the judge, his "girls" carved X's into their foreheads and shaved their heads and some held vigils outside the courthouse. A defense attorney disappeared and was found dead in the woods—foul play was suspected but never proven. Bugliosi became the lead prosecutor two months into the case when a more senior attorney, Aaron Stovitz, was removed by the DA for making public statements on the case. Here Bugliosi is speaking to reporters in the courthouse hallway about Manson's rejection of the lawyer assigned to him:

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All four defendants in the trial were ultimately sentenced to death but their sentences were reduced to life when the US Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. That's why we periodically hear about Charles Manson being up for parole.

Bugliosi turned his experience and successes on the Manson trial into a bestselling book published with collaborator Curt Gentry in 1974 Helter Skelter—twice turned into films. He first proposed the theory that the Manson Family's murder spree was an attempt to trigger an apocalyptic race war between blacks and whites. Manson believed that blacks would win this war but that they would hand over power to his "family" who planned to survive the war by hiding out in Death Valley. Bugliosi described it this way to Time Magazine:

Helter-skelter was the motive for the murders. Manson borrowed that term from a Beatles song on the White Album. In England, helter-skelter is a playground ride. 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 s___ 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 continued to author books about the legal issues of the day, including Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and The Prosecution of George W. Bush For Murder, an indictment of the Iraq War. For decades, he would appear as a talking head on news networks to talk about legal issues—including the Manson trial.

Bugliosi was born in Minnesota, and his family moved out to Los Angeles where he graduated from Hollywood High School. He went to the University of Miami on a tennis scholarship and received a law degree from UCLA. He joined the DA's office in 1964. He ran for District Attorney in 1972 and 1976 after the trial. He also ran for state attorney. But he never did win elected office.


Vincent Bugliosi and witness Cpl. Thomas Drynan of the Oregon State Police on February 1, 1971. (Photo by Bob Shultz via the Los Angeles Public Library)
He knew that the Manson trial would define his legacy in a way others in the DA's office at the time didn't. Stephen R. Kay, a former L.A. County deputy district attorney who worked on the Manson trial, told the Times in 2012: "Another attorney had told me, ‘This is just another big case and in five years, everyone will forget about it.' But Vince really understood the potential all along, that this was the case of a career."

He was often asked to describe our continuing fascination with the Manson Family. He told the Times in 1994: "The very name Manson has become a metaphor for evil...He has come to represent the dark and malignant side of humanity, and for whatever reason, there is a side of human nature that is fascinated with ultimate evil."

Bugliosi is survived by his wife, son Vincent Jr. and daughter Wendy.