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Lawyer-author Bugliosi: from brutal fact to brutal fiction

Vincent Bugliosi. The name alone sounds pugnacious. Like a boxing promoter. Or some other occupation equally as feisty. But that's probably not a bad thing for the man who, 10 years ago, successfully prosecuted the infamous murderer and self-styled cult figure, Charles Manson.

Newspapers called Manson the "most dangerous man alive." His crimes -- ordering the murders of nine people -- frightened and confused the world back in 1969; they provide a disturbing memory even today.

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But sitting here, comfortable in tweed jacket and modest brown tie, the man who spent nearly two years exploring the details of those murders for his prosecution, and several more months writing (with Curt Gentry) the best-selling book "Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders" seems unfazed.

In his soft Midwest twang, which only occasionally rises to courtroom levels, Vincent Bugliosi seems more comfortable talking about the pros and cons of gun control and the characters in his latest book than discussing the details of that 10-year-old trial. He is the opposite of sensational.

Which was perhaps disappointing to the host of a local TV talk show who kept pressing the former prosecutor on the age-old details. "Now isn't this a picture of Squeaky Fromme?" she coaxed (Fromme, a Manson follower, later gained national notoriety when she tried to assassinate President Ford). "Oh yes, here's Linda Kasabian. Wasn't she your star witness?"

Questions from the audience were no less relenting. "Do you think Manson will ever be paroled?" "Didn't you have police protection during the trial?" "Bugliosi dutifully, if yes than enthusiastically, replies to each eager inquiry.

But all this haunting of the past. Bugliosi acknowledges, is the price of fame and fortune. His enthusiasm drops to nil when, on coast-to-coast flights, he becomes captive to stewardesses and copilots fascinated with the "inside story" of Charles Manson. "The notoriety," he says, "is not something that I like."

Maybe, maybe not. While Bugliosi is nor trying to shed his famous prosecutor image, his actions seem less an effort to turn off the prosecution limelight than an attempt to move into the spotlight of criminal defense. Having just completed his third book, Bugliosi takes the opportunity to hammer home his latest career goals:

"I would like to become one of the leading criminal defense attorneys in the country," he freely admits. Something along the lines of an F. Lee Bailey. With typical bravado, he adds, "And I don't have the smallest speck of doubt that I have every necessary tool to do it." With the successful Manson prosecution and a 99 percent conviction record during his tenure as deputy district attorney of Los Angeles, Bugliosi is quite possibly correct in his self-assessment.

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Yet why should one of the most well-known prosecuting criminal attorney ever to saddle up choose to change horses in the middle of the race?

"Well, that [prosecution] gets to be rather a prosaic type of existence," he says. "After you've tried about 100 robberies, they're all the same. They actually say "Stick-em up! I want your money.' They don't have any imagination." In other words, "it gets boring after awhile." Surprising admissions for those outside legal circles, but no doubt a legitimate gripe regardless of the profession. Apparently Bugliosi once cherished dreams of becoming a tennis pro.

What is next on the Bugliosi agenda? After losing the Los Angeles County district attorney's race back in 1972, he returned to private practice and is now more-or-less a garden-variety criminal defense attorney. To offset the somewhat less-than-glamorous aspects of private practice. Bugliosi keeps up a relatively steady stream of legal articles, lectures, and books. His most recent book, "Shadow of Cain," written with Ken Hurwitz, has just been published and is his first attempt at a novel.

But by his own admission, Bugliosi is most eagerly scouting the horizon for that "one big case" to do for his defense career what the Manson trial did for him as a prosecutor. A trial like the Hearst case -- the highly controversial and intenationally publicized prosecution against newspaper heiress and Symbionese Liberation Army captive Patty Hearst -- would be ideal, he says. "I could have become emotionally involved in that case." Unfortunately, those cases "come down once every 10 years.

For the time being, Bugliosi seems stuck with his reputation as a tough-guy prosecutor. And one of the biggest deterrents to changing that image in the very near future could be his reluctance to take a case when the accused is likely to be guilty.

"There is nothing in the canons of ethics of the American Bar that says you have to represent everyone that comes to your door I have to believe in a client before I'll take the case."

On the other hand, to turn down every guilty client would force most defense attorneys to "take paper routes." What seems to be requisite for the Bugliosi conscience is "extenuating or mitigating circumstances." Something that was notoriously absent in the Manson trial.

"I do not want to represent some of these aimless murderers. I don't criticize lawyers who do. But I don't want to get up in front of a jury and try to get a murderer off when I know he's guilty."

Should the acquitted party injure someone again when set free, Bugliosi says he would "rather dig a ditch than take a case like that. I would have deceived the public."

Despite his protestations of not being a "law-and-order type," some observers contend that Bugliosi is deeply committed to the prosecutorial side of the law. Bugliosi himself admits to having grave doubts about "heinous criminals" ever being tryly reformed. Their release back into society, he sees as "still creating a risk."

Questions of reformation and recidivism are big topics with Bugliosi, and he raises them with a somewhat heavy hand in his latest book, "Shadow of Cain," Bugliosi bills the book as sort of a sequel to "Helter Skelter." The two book jacket covers even look alike with their similar scrawled red type angling across the front.

"Shadow of Cain" picks up where "Helter Skelter" lets off by tracking the life of a fictional mass murderer. Ray Lomak, after his release from prison. Because of Bugliosi's lack of faith in the ability of criminals to reform, the reader is left with no doubt that the protagonist will commit murder again. and he does with predictable results.

But Bugliosi is not so hard-hearted as to create his main character without any redeeming qualities. Ray Lomak has been "born again" during his years of incarceration, and upon his release from prison he essays to be a model citizen by actively seeking employment. His job search as an ex-con is, not surprisingly, unsuccessful. Only a fluke acquaintance rescues him from joblessness, but even that is not enough to prevent him from eventually returning to a life of crime.

The situation neatly ties up two big Bugliosi themes: certain criminals will always pose a threat to society and should never be paroled; but for those criminals deserving parole, jobs should be made available. With the average criminal recidivism rate hovering at an alarming 50 percent in the US, Bugliosi believes that jobs for ex-cons "could make a dent in the rising crime rate," by providing them with self-respect, legally obtained income, and "some noncriminal associations and friendships."

Some critics contend that Bugliosi's hard-line stance on life imprisonment without possibility of parole of hardened criminals panders to a public that is angry over rising crime rates and eager for some solution. But the former prosecutor counters, "I don't believe in glamorizing these people [mass murderers]. . . . I just don't see how you can ever let them out." A decade after the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi seems as sure of that as ever.

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