Manson Follower's Parole Bid Stirs Memories

Correction Dec. 10, 2010

An earlier headline on this story misdated the Tate-LaBianca murders. They took place in August 1969.

Manson family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi discusses the significance of the Tate-LaBianca murders 40 years after they happened and about Susan Atkins, one of the convicted killers, who is up for parole this week. Bugliosi is the co-author of Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Forty years ago, Charles Manson and his family of followers carried out the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders in Southern California. The Manson family's crimes and the strange ideology behind them re-emerge whenever there are new legal developments surrounding the convicted killers.

Family member Susan Atkins has been in prison since October 1969. She's dying of brain cancer, as she awaits a parole hearing this Tuesday.

To talk about the killings and the Manson family's place in American lore, we've called Vincent Bugliosi. He was one of the prosecutors in the case and he co-wrote the book "Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders." He joins us by phone from his home in Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.

Mr. VINCENT BUGLIOSI (Co-author, "Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders"): Happy to be on the show, Liane.

HANSEN: What is it about Charles Manson and his followers that continues to generate such strong interest?

Mr. BUGLIOSI: There are many reasons, Liane. If I were to give you what I believe to be the single most important reason is that the murders were probably the most bizarre in the recorded annals of American crime. I mean, the incredible motive for the murders: to ignite a war between Blacks and Whites, that Manson called helter skelter, would be the last final destructive on the face of this Earth, according to him.

Who were the killers? Young kids from average homes of fairly good backgrounds, completely different from what we would expect of mass murderers. The very thought of young women dressed in black, armed with sharp knives entering the homes of total strangers in the middle of the night, is really so horrendous a thought that it's difficult to contemplate a thought like that.

So it's just one bizarre thing after another. And I've often said that if these murders had never happened and someone had written a novel, with the same set of facts and circumstances, you'd probably put it down after a couple of pages. Because to be good fiction, as I understand it - unless it's science fiction -it's got to be somewhat believable, and this is just too far out.

HANSEN: Susan Atkins confessed to stabbing pregnant actress Sharon Tate. And there are many who actually count her unborn child as one of the victims.

Mr. BUGLIOSI: Right.

HANSEN: Isn't her confession automatically an argument against clemency?

Mr. BUGLIOSI: Well, she told me that she stabbed Sharon Tate to death. But when I called her to the grand jury the very next day, Susan Atkins told me that she told Sharon Tate: Look, (Beep) I don't have any mercy on you. You're going to die.

She admitted that in front of the grand jury, but not to stabbing Sharon Tate. But that's neither here nor there. Under the law of aiding and abetting and conspiracy, whether you participate in the stabbing or not, is immaterial. So Atkins is guilty of first degree murder, legally. It has some relevance on the degree of moral culpability that varies from person to person. And the person doing all the stabbing is more morally culpable than someone that did not.

But the main thing about Susan Atkins - and I have not opposed her being released, even though I sought the death penalty against her is that in addition to her already serving 40 years, which we cannot cavalierly dismiss, she's literally on her death bed. One of her legs has been amputated. The other one is paralyzed. She doesn't speak. She kind of mumbles. She has terminal brain cancer. And according to the L.A. Times, she's only got a couple months to live.

So, I don't even know if I'd put her in the same category of the others. If she were healthy and look like she'd be alive for many years, I would oppose her release. But right now, I don't see any reason why. So I don't think that's a case we can put into the category whether the Manson family killer should be paroled.

All of them should've been executed way back in 1971, and I asked for the death penalty. But Susan Atkins is a little different story here, now after 40 years.

HANSEN: And in "Helter Skelter," your book, you criticized the way that the Los Angeles Police Department's homicide detectives handled the investigation and the gathering of the evidence. What do you think the LAPD has learned about investigating major crimes after the killings?

Mr. BUGLIOSI: There were detectives in the LAPD that handled the Tate murders and those that handled the LaBianca murders. And what did happen there, and hopefully they'd learned from this, is they were not sharing information. They were going off on their own. And I discovered that and tried to put the two units back together, as did their superiors. And they eventually were working together as a team.

But, you know, by and large they did a good job and they worked hard. There were some slip-ups, but that's common.

HANSEN: Vincent Bugliosi was the chief prosecutor in the Tate-LaBianca murder case. Thank you, Mr. Bugliosi.

Mr. BUGLIOSI: Thank you. I'm happy to be on the show.

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