This morning (June 9, 2015) it was announced on various news outlets that Vincent T. Bugliosi, most famous as Los Angeles District Attorney back in the 1960s, died three days ago of cancer at an L.A. hospital. He was 80. My heart and my condolences go out to Mr. Bugliosi’s family, friends and loved ones. Because he was one of my personal heroes, a man whose writings, accomplishments and particularly his mind I greatly admired, I feel it’s only fitting that I create this article as a tribute to him. I was aware that Mr. Bugliosi faced health challenges over the last few years so while the news is not unexpected, it’s still saddening. America has lost not only a great lawyer, but a very able historian, and a thinker who can teach us all about the value of logic, reasoning and critical thinking.
Every news story I saw today announcing Bugliosi’s death led with the claim-to-fame that will ultimately be his legacy: he was the district attorney who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson and his murderous “Family” for their horrifying 1969 killings of numerous people. Obviously that’s huge, and so much of what we know about the bizarre Manson story came to the public through the true crime book Bugliosi co-authored in 1974 with Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter. But there are many other testaments to Bugliosi’s genius that have nothing to do with Manson, and which are even more illustrative of how his fascinating mind worked and how he saw the world.
Two books by Bugliosi sit on the shelf of my history office. (I keep Reclaiming History at home).
In 1978 Bugliosi wrote another book that came from his prosecutorial past: the much less well-known Till Death Do Us Part, which concerned two murders that occurred in L.A. in late 1966. The case was an amazing mind puzzle full of clues that could only come together with the application of logic, in exactly the way a well-written murder mystery does. Thanks to Bugliosi’s genius and his legal acumen, he put the two murderers, Alan Palliko and Sandra Stockton, behind bars. In another celebrated case which also became a book, Bugliosi, then (mid-1980s) a defense attorney rather than prosecutor, successfully proved the innocence of Stephanie Stearns, accused of murdering a couple on the remote Pacific island of Palmyra in 1974. In fact Stearns’s then boyfriend, Wesley “Buck” Walker, murdered them alone. The key part of the defense was logic: a reasoned argument as to why it made no sense that Stearns would have done it, and why Walker did. In 2013 I wrote one of my most popular articles, about the disappearance of Malcolm “Mac” Graham (one of Walker’s victims), using Bugliosi’s 1991 book, And The Sea Will Tell, as a source. It’s the logic of the case that’s so compelling.
In 1986, just as he was finishing the Stearns trial, Bugliosi was asked to take part in an elaborate mock trial being organized by a British television network. The defendant was Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Bugliosi was the prosecutor and noted defense lawyer Gerry Spence was the defense. The trial was a simulation, but the witnesses, evidence and even the jurors were all genuine, from actual Dallas jury rolls circa 1963. Applying his laser-like focus on logic to the case, Bugliosi proved not only that Oswald killed Kennedy, but that he acted alone in doing so, despite many Americans’ belief that there was a conspiracy. His desire to bring this conclusion to the American public, rather than just a British TV audience, resulted in Bugliosi’s awesome, 21-year effort to write Reclaiming History: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, which is, in my view, truly what he deserves to be remembered for.
Mac Graham, who disappeared on Palmyra Island, was certainly murdered by Wesley “Buck” Walker (his wife’s body was found, his wasn’t). Bugliosi defended Walker’s girlfriend who was also accused.
Reclaiming History is an astounding piece of historical writing. At 1700 pages, with 900 additional pages of footnotes–so big that when you buy the book the footnotes come on a CD-Rom (and yes, I have read it all)–Bugliosi’s treatment of the Kennedy assassination set the new definition of “comprehensive” when writing about a historical event. His research was so meticulous, so thorough and exacting that one wonders how a human being could hold and process so much detailed information in his head. Vincent Bugliosi did, and it proves how amazing his mind was. Furthermore, his north star, guiding him through 21 years of the process, was an unyielding respect for truth and the rules of logic and critical thinking. Cutting through all the chaff, misinformation and pseudohistorical arguments that have misled Americans for decades about what happened in the Kennedy case, Bugliosi placed beyond all doubt that one man, and one man alone, was responsible for the Kennedy assassination. This despite the fact that something like 75% of the American public believed in a conspiracy. Bugliosi knew he was right. Furthermore, he could prove it–and he did. Sometimes standing up for historical truth takes exceptional courage. Bugliosi had it.
Furthermore, Bugliosi was able to do what most of us in America can’t: avoid being blinded by our political prejudices, and seeing the truth for what it is. Politically Bugliosi was, so far as I know, a conservative Republican. Yet he coldly denounced the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision that made George W. Bush President over Al Gore, blasting its partisan bias and lack of legal basis. He went further, writing another famous book, The Prosecution of George W. Bush For Murder, laying out why the former President could legally be liable for the deaths of the over 4,000 soldiers who died during the Iraq War. These are gutsy stands for a conservative to take. Yet notice both of them are based not on partisan political feeling, but on legal reasoning. Bugliosi was able to separate law from politics in an age where the two have become extensions of each other. In my view it’s a sin that he was never elevated to the Supreme Court.
In his masterful book Reclaiming History, Bugliosi proved that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone on November 22, 1963 when he killed President John F. Kennedy.
There are very few public intellectuals left in America, people whose fame and admiration rests largely on the activities of their minds and words rather than their deeds. Bugliosi might not even count as one, as he wasn’t an academic in the classic sense, but I can guarantee that if we had more people like him shaping our public, legal and historical discourse, the intellectual life of America would be much stronger than it is. He was a wonderful man with an incredible intellect. He left the country safer and smarter as a result of his works and his words. I can think of few more fitting eulogies for anyone.
Goodbye, Vincent Bugliosi. Thanks for everything–you will be missed.