Legal heroes: Vincent Bugliosi

Kevin Dent admires the determination & commitment of the US attorney


Once a jury has delivered verdicts, either guilty or not guilty, there is a tendency to believe that the result was always a foregone conclusion. Lawyers on the inside of trials, however, know that this is far from the case. The successful conclusion of a long tough case is more usually the result of making correct strategic decisions and represents the culmination of relentless work towards a goal. No lawyer and no case exemplifies this more than US attorney Vincent Bugliosi and his prosecution of the infamous Charles Manson and his accomplices for the murder of film actress Sharon Tate and six others, savage attacks committed in the Hollywood hills over the course of two nights in August 1969.

Difficult burden

When in December 1969 Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi was handed the role of co-lead prosecution counsel following the arrest of Charles Manson and his three co-accused, there was a widespread expectation that Manson would be acquitted. He had not been physically present at the attacks so the prosecution had the difficult burden of proving that he had nonetheless ordered and directed the killings. A complicating factor was that most of what the prosecution knew about the killings came from the often unreliable shifting accounts of various members of Manson’s strange hippy cult group of followers known as The Family. No murder weapon had initially been found and there was a deficit of forensic evidence.  Indeed, before the trial began one of the defence attorneys was famously quoted as saying ‘all the prosecution has is two fingerprints and Vince Bugliosi’.

Bugliosi and the prosecution team had to build the case up from the ground over many months until it ultimately formed an unbreakable wall of circumstantial evidence that uncontrovertibly proved that both that Charles Manson led the conspiracy to murder and that those he sent out to do the slayings (Charles "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten) were all willing and active participants.

Brave calls

There are always important strategic decisions to be made long before trials commence, and here Bugliosi made a number of brave judgement calls on how the case should be presented. Seen as bold and risky at the time, these choices were key to the ultimate successful outcome.

First, he took on the burden of seeking to explain to the jury the almost unbelievably bizarre motive for the murders based upon Manson’s concept of ‘Helter Skelter’ (named after the Beatles song of the same name) in which the murders were intended to be the catalyst for an apocalyptic race war to bring about the end of times. In doing so, Bugliosi’s view prevailed over others within the prosecution team who argued that the motive should be explained as a robbery-gone-wrong. Bugliosi rightly perceived that the key advantage in the former explanation was that, although unpalatable and stretching credulity, it was self-evidently true. And, because it was true, Helter Skelter ultimately formed a cohesive thread that bound together testimony from many disparate sources.

Second, Bugliosi understood that the prosecution would have to present evidence from former members of The Family in order to show Manson’s total domination over the group such that the murders could not have occurred without his ordering them. He also correctly judged that a witness present at the slayings would need to give evidence of what occurred, and so facilitated Linda Kasabian (the driver on the trip to Sharon Tate’s residence) being granted immunity in return for testifying. Linda Kasabian’s evidence became a central plank of the prosecution’s case and she was on the witness stand for eighteen days, to devastating effect. In closing argument Bugliosi referred to this as:

‘An extraordinarily long period of time for any witness to testify in any case. I think you will all agree with me that during that eighteen days Linda Kasabian and the truth were companions.’

Effort & resilience

Perhaps more than anything else, preparing and then presenting at trial, a large case requires an extraordinary amount of effort and resilience. Notwithstanding the importance and complexity of the Manson case, Bugliosi was one of only two lead prosecutors assigned to it. When Bugliosi’s co-counsel Aaron Stovitz was pulled off the case for comments he had made to reporters, he became effectively sole lead counsel during a gruelling nine-month trial (then the longest in history). In Helter Skelter, Bugliosi’s book about the trial, he describes working 100-hour weeks over a period of almost two years, and notwithstanding that he had a young family. Somehow he had the ability to work late into the night, take a couple of hours sleep and then be up and ready for the next day in court.

In court Bugliosi had to counter relentless objections from defence counsel, most notoriously from Manson’s lawyer Irving Kanarek who had been described by one judge as ‘the most obstructionist man I have ever met’. Kanarek’s evident purpose was to confuse juries and knock opposing attorneys off their stride. Thus he objected nine times to Bugliosi’s opening to the jury and by the third day of trial had registered more than 200 objections when the press stopped counting. Amazingly, Bugliosi was able to stay firm and focussed throughout, never noticeably losing his stride.

Unceasing interruptions

The defendants too regularly sought to disrupt the proceedings by interrupting Bugliosi, making strong and sometimes bizarre comments and pulling various stunts. Bugliosi somehow was able to keep his calm and never lost his thread. The following excerpt from his closing speech gives a glimpse of the unceasing interruptions, and Bugliosi’s resilience in the face of them:

BUGLIOSI: ‘When the prosecution finally called its last witness to the stand a few weeks ago and rested, the defense also rested.’

DEFENDANT MANSON: ‘The defense never rested. The lawyers, the judge's lawyers, rested.’

BUGLIOSI: ‘I am sure all of you heaved a sigh of relief. It has been an incredibly long, gruelling trial and an enormous imposition on all of you. Before I discuss the evidence and the testimony in this case, I would like to briefly go over the law that you are going to be dealing with during your deliberations.

‘Although the evidence at this trial shows that Charles Manson was the leader of the conspiracy to commit these murders, there is no evidence that he actually personally killed any of the seven victims in this case. However, the joint responsibility rule of conspiracy makes him guilty of all seven murders.’

DEFENDANT MANSON: ‘Even if I have never been in the Gotham Bank!’

BUGLIOSI: ‘Now that you have had a little legal background, I would like to discuss with you the evidence and the facts of this case.’

Tenacious advocacy

What is even more remarkable about Bugliosi’s conduct of the case is not just that he was able to persevere and present an extraordinarily complex prosecution case in the face of fierce opposition, but that in the midst of all this he was able to produce some of the most tenacious and memorable advocacy of all time. His closing speech to the jury is included in books on the greatest ever closing arguments. In it Bugliosi carefully and powerfully brought together the many strands of the prosecution case into one compelling narrative of the complete dominance over others by Manson and the savagery by him and the other defendants. The language he used was powerful, precise and lawyerly but also rooted in the vernacular of everyday people. On top of all this, he had the gift for the unforgettable phrase.

Consider for instance this passage concerning Manson’s domination of those around him and his reference to The Family as a ‘closely knit band of vagabond robots’:

‘The Family, the Family that lived at Spahn Ranch in the very, very, last analysis, was nothing more than a closely knit band of vagabond robots who were slavishly obedient to one man and one man only, their master, their leader, their god, Charles Manson. Within his domain, his authority and power were unlimited. He was the dictatorial maharajah, if you will, of a tribe of bootlicking slaves who were only too happy to do his bidding for him.’

The trial is still one of the most famous in legal history, perhaps now only eclipsed by The People v OJ Simpson. I think though that people often overlook what is really significant about the case. To me, looking back to events over 40 years ago what is striking is not the cruel savage antics of Manson and his deluded acolytes but the heroic determination and commitment of a lawyer Vincent Bugliosi in the most extraordinary circumstances to ensure that they would be fairly but thoroughly prosecuted and that the truth would come out.

Contributor Kevin Dent, barrister, 5 St Andrew's Hill Chambers