Prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial Vincent Bugliosi held a unique insider's position in one of the most baffling and horrifying cases of the 20th century: the cold-blooded Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by Charles Manson and four of his followers. What motivated Manson in his seemingly mindless selection of victims, and what was his hold over the young women who obeyed his orders? Now available for the first time in unabridged audio, the gripping story of this famous and haunting crime is brought to life by acclaimed narrator Scott Brick.
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Everything I remembered about the case was wrong..
I was two years out of law school in 1969, working in the governor's office in Sacramento. In Northern California we were still living in fear over another monster, the Zodiac Killer -- another vicious apparently 'random' killer who was never identified. Unlike the Zodiac, Manson and his family were captured -- which made his case all that much more interesting, garnering the attention of almost everyone for months on end. I followed it closely -- or thought I did. I read Bugliosi's book soon after it came out and remember loving it, loving access to the details about the "family" he provided that I hadn't known before.
How time changes things. What I loved about the book in the 1970's were the personal elements, biographical details about the "family's" lives, who they were, how they got caught up in the insanity, much of which hadn't been widely available at the time.
Now, listening to Scott Brick's elegant, almost respectful, narration, I see something entirely different. Now -- in light of another judicial fiasco out of Los Angeles -- what captures my attention was the horrendous incompetence of the Los Angeles judicial system.
Now, all I can do is compare the Manson case to the O.J. Simpson case, in which (if you can believe this) bad as it was, the LAPD comes off looking pretty good as compared to Manson. In Manson, there were so much mismanagement, elemental mistakes, goofs and just plain incompetence of the LAPD, it's a wonder any of them were convicted of anything.
There's no question in my mind that if Manson went to trial today in LA, on the evidence available back then, he would never be convicted. Juries back then were, I think, more rational, more justice-based, than they are today. Today, I think the defense would be able to capitalize on the unbelievable errors, loose ends, mishandling of the evidence, incompetence in handling the evidence -- from everyone, the medical examiner, the police, and the detectives. Today, a jury would focus in on all those errors and mistakes. Back then, the jury focused on the big picture. Did these people do what they were alleged to have done? In short, they kept the defendants on trial. They didn't feel the need to try the LAPD instead.
Much credit goes to Vince Bugliosi himself, of course. His oft-repeated frustration with the total lack of trial support he was getting makes for fascinating reading. Working 14 hour days, being forced into doing much of the leg work himself after the LAPD failed or refused to do it -- or just lost it, after they did do it -- you get a real feel for the seat-of-the-pants lawyering that was possible back then. The world has changed. That wouldn't work anymore -- and on the whole, life in the US is the poorer and more dangerous for it.
All in all, "Helter Skelter" is a fascinating look at a monumental trial that still plays ranks high in legal mythology. It's a key part of American cultural history that's well worth reading, rereading or listening to.
As someone who remembers the murders and the circus that followed, I was not sure that I would be able to sit through such a lengthy rendition of the story. When I saw that Scott Brick was the narrator, I knew it would be a breeze. His style and pace are brilliant. Even when I listen at double-speed on my iPhone, I can grasp every syllable, and in this book, every syllable is relevant.
Written during the time-period in which the crimes took place there is not a lot of time wasted setting up the ambiance of the time, which was quite unique. I think that this still comes across thirty-odd years later.
Never a fan of Vincent Bugliosi, finding him arrogant in most interviews I have seen, I have now learned to appreciate how much work and skill went into getting convictions in an impossible case. This is especially impressive when you realize the way the Tate investigators botched the case from the start.
The writers weave each thread into a tapestry that captures this dreadful part of history. I am so glad Audible made the unabridged version available.