A fine mind has left us: Remembering Vincent Bugliosi, lawyer, historian and logician.

vincent bugliosi by noho damon

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.

bugliosi books

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.

palmyra curse header

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.

The photo of Vincent Bugliosi at the top of this article is by Flickr user NoHoDamon and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license (I cropped it slightly from the original). The image of Mac Graham is from the book And The Sea Will Tell by Vincent T. Bugliosi and Bruce Henderson. This is the only known photo of a person of public interest, so I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use. The photo of the books is by me; other images public domain.
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10 Comments

  1. I was aware of the book “Helter Skelter” and the book about the Palmyra Island killings, but I did not know about the volume on the Kennedy Assassination nor his book on Bush and the Iraqi War casualties. Thanks for bringing those to my attention.

  2. I find it difficult to believe that someone born on the Minnesota Iron Range in the 1930s would ever become a conservative Republican… 😎

  3. Great article; I am halfway through my third re-reading of And The Sea Will Tell. Have read Helter Skelter twice, but was unaware of the other two books you mention. I’m so pleased to discover there are two other books I can devour. As you say, a fine mind, a crystalline logic, unerring inherent sense of justice and fairness and an astounding ability to cut through distraction and detail and see the bare bones, the sense, underlying it all. I am struck anew, in reading And The Sea, by his observation that the presumption of innocence virtually precludes any way of presenting proof of that innocence, at least in any cohesive, organised way. What a brutally obvious, yet little-remarked, anomaly. Great loss.

  4. Good article. But a person is proven not guilty rather than innocent. I do wonder if Stephanie Stearns, who was convicted on a drug charge with Walker and of course on theft of the Sea Wind, was actually guilty. As for the Kennedy assassination, read Mortal Error which clearly demonstrates that Agent Hickey in the follow up car accidentally fired his AR15 rifle and the facts show that it was this shot that killed Kennedy. Among the evidence was that the kill shot used not a full metal jacket bullet which Oswald fired, but an exploding bullet which the AR15 used (and is actually used by law enforcement today). Full metal jacket bullets go through and through as happened with the neck shot from Oswald. A full metal jacket bullet would not have cause Kennedy’s head to “explode” as it had but would have gone right through. Also, subsequent evidence I think at the ARRB hearing called by Clinton in the 1990s demonstrated that the autopsy incorrectly identified the hole as being about 4 inches too low. The resulting angle and ballistic tests showed the shot came from the secret service car behind JFK and that the bullet was not a full metal jacket bullet, respectively. There are numerous other inconsistencies in the evidence which support this view including those outlined in a documentary based on the work of an apparently renowned investigator from Australia which documentary was created more recently.
    If true, and it does seem very credible, it is a huge indictment of the Secret Service of that time. Having said that, I suppose I can understand why there would be an interest in hiding the fact that an agent accidentally discharged his firearm and killed the president as no one would have wanted to hear that back then. One other thing; there were numerous witnesses including a Senator, I believe other Secret Service agents and local police who smelled gunpowder at street level. With prevailing winds blowing in Oswald’s face plus the fact that the smell of gunpowder at street level would not have been possible unless a gun had been discharged at street level. The Secret Service of course denied any weapons were discharged by agents or any police that day. Ironically, neither Agent Hickey’s weapon nor any other agent’s weapon was inspected by the Warren commission.
    I did like Bugliosi’s And the Sea will Tell. It was a great story. As you may know, Stearns came from a wealthy family but if memory serves, the Graham’s were not “upper crust” but regular people who loves sailing.
    I’ve been meaning to read Helter Skelter for a while now and will have to go out and buy the book soon.

    1. Utter nonsense. The ridiculous theory that a Secret Service agent fired a shot that killed Kennedy stems from the conspiratorial delusions of William Cooper, who is worthy of exactly zero credibility; the “facts [that] show it was this shot that killed Kennedy” simply do not exist. The facts that are proven show that one bullet from Oswald’s Mannlicher-Carcano rifle killed John F. Kennedy, and the striations on that bullet prove beyond all doubt that this bullet was fired from Oswald’s rifle–to the exclusion of all other weapons in the entire world. There is no more conclusive proof that Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, and that anything to the contrary is conspiratorial nonsense with not a single shred of evidence to validate it.

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