I was watching or reading something the other day and OJ was called “the most famous murderer” of all time. And maybe that’s true today, but Vincent Bugliosi makes the compelling case in the updated epilogue from 1999 for this book that Charles Manson and Jack the Ripper are much more clear candidates for that. This is also him writing after the sensationalist decades of serial killers with Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, David Berkowitz, and a few others. I am not sure I agree that Manson is the most famous, or even the top two, but by the end of the book he’s clearly one of the most interesting without a doubt. Partly this is because while plenty is known and famous about those other killers, none of them is nearly as clearly a celebrity in the way that Manson was. Even OJ, whose murders are not very interesting when it comes down to it, was less of a celeb as a killer, so much as just a celeb.
This book also clearly started it all when it comes to books about killers. Vincent Bugliosi was the prosecuting DA in the Manson murders, which includes both the murders at Sharon Tate’s house as well as the murders on the following night at the LaBianca house. The book is structured with the murders first, then with a background on Manson, the Manson family, the investigation into the crimes, and mostly, the trial itself. The trial is full of colorful characters including Bugliosi himself, who is cast as the angry but patriotic (pro-social) district attorney who truly believes in the cause of justice, not just winning. He’s the same age as Manson, which adds a layer of interest of course, but where Manson veered, Bugliosi stayed straight. Manson is there, peppering the courts with asides, outbursts, direct and indirect threats, and one attack. The Manson family is in the galleria sometimes with the same. Manson’s lawyer makes every delay tactic imaginable to attempt to exclude every piece of argument and evidence possible. The judge is straight and narrow, a little bit awful, but also a little bit hapless. And then we get a handful of memorable witnesses.
If we are to believe Bugliosi for most of this (and I suppose the trial was pretty public) then without a doubt Manson was guilty as hell, but tying the various pieces of evidence proved difficult, if ultimately achievable.
There’s some mythmaking here too. Poor poor California with its laws that protect the accused! Poor poor prosecutors who just want to serve the public!
Who are not given an easy time are the LAPD and LA Sheriff’s Office who come off as lazy, incompetent buffoons. Like I can’t even make this stuff up. They refused to go look for weapons. They refused to go look for bloody clothes until one of the defendants sold her story to the paper and THEN a news crew found the clothes first; then they looked. They even just dropped a file folder on the ground crossing the street and lost evidence to the wind. So I will feel for him there.
As a book of courtroom drama, it’s great. He even avoids some nonsense. He agrees with an assessment of Manson as a “right-wing hippie” who used the language of hippieness to espouse a violent dictatorship, refusing to tie this into counter culture. He seems like a mostly plain-dealer narrator.