I heard this morning that Vincent Bugliosi, the famed prosecutor who put Charles Manson and his followers away for the awful Tate-La Bianca killings in Los Angeles in 1969, died over the weekend of cancer at the age of 80. While I am in the middle of writing a new Beatles related piece, I thought I’d comment on this current (somewhat Beatles related) bit of news.
I’ve been fascinated by this case since I heard about it, as a 9-year-old in the late 1970’s. It’s kind of like a recurring nightmare that has caused me to read the famed book, Helter Skelter, and seek out further information to understand the case that has haunted me since childhood. The central question to these murders is why? Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor pushed one motive on the jury to frame the murders and put Charles Manson at the center of it all. He called the motive “Helter Skelter” and it resonated. I’m not a Helter Skelter defender. Not the song, which I love, but the raison d’etre for the killings. This motive, central to using the conspiracy theory, was used by Vincent Bugliosi to tie Manson, who didn’t actually murder any of the victims, to the crimes and lock him up with the actual murderers. Apparently, Helter Skelter (the motive) was based on the concept that the Beatles playground themed proto-heavy metal track, and the rest of the White Album, supposedly inspired the idea in Charlie and his followers’ minds that an armegeddon like race war was about to take place and would need to be set in motion by Manson so that he and his followers could go into hiding in the California desert and wait out the war until its conclusion. Then at which time, Manson supposedly prophecied that the black masses would defeat the white masses, but would be unsuited to rule the new world and would lead them to relinquish their power to Manson, who would them rule over a new and better world. Pretty out there stuff!
Prosecutor Bugliosi, in putting together his case against Manson and his followers developed this theory out of interviews with some, but not all the defendents and followers. It’s contended by other Manson associates and followers that they never even heard Charlie’s prophecies about Helter Skelter or that it wasn’t germane to anything really going on with Charlie at the time. Who knows? The mercurial Manson was known to use whatever personal charm and inchoate marketing skills at his avail to achieve whatever his weasly, antisocial, narcissist, con-artist mind could muster up in order to get people to do what he wanted them to do, all the while, giving himself what he thought would be credible legal distance from the crimes but giving his followers the rope to hang themselves for the horrifying things he set in motion.
I can’t help but have respect for Vincent Bugliosi for putting the murdering creeps in jail. The criminal justice system, being totally adversarial at its roots left the prosection with a daunting task. They had the right perps locked up and on trial, and while Bugliosi may have had to play loose with establishing the motive, he had little choice but to string some kind of narrative out of the case interviews. There is still great debate as to what might be the real motive for killings, with many seeming to be based on Manson personal vendettas, drug hits, mafia hits, enacting copycat murders to get one of their own members out of prison for an earlier murder (if you’re interested try googling Gary Hinman), or that other members of the Manson family devised it but not Charlie. Bizarre as it was and still is, out of the chaos, prosecutorial rules and limited time frame, Vincent Bugliosi did the job he was required as a public servant to do, and put Charlie Manson away for good, to protect the public. Though the killers and their leader were all convicted and given the death penalty, the California Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 1972 and all the convicted murderers death sentences were commuted to life sentences. The judicial system is far from perfect but in the case of the Tate-La Bianca murders, Bugliosi did his best working with a highly flawed process, to achieve what I believe is the correct result.
As a child, after watching the 1970’s TV movie Helter Skelter, and hearing about all this crap for the first time, I felt relieved hearing that Prosecutor Bugliosi put those vicious murderers away for good. Though obviously dramatized for television, the trial and case details presented depict a decent general idea of how things transpired with the trial being as riveting as the crimes were astounding. These were horrific crimes, after all, and still hardly make any sense. We can argue about motives and prison sentences for the rest of eternity I guess.
Irony being what it is of course, Charles Manson, the elder in terms of age, has now outlived Vincent Bugliosi. But at least Bugliosi departed this world having helped make it a little better. No one in their right mind will ever be ever be able to say the same thing about his old courtroom nemesis.