Contact Reporter Los Angeles Times
Leslie Van Houten, who was convicted along with other members of Charles Manson's cult in the 1969 killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, was granted parole Wednesday by a panel of state commissioners in Chino.
It was the 21st time that Van Houten, 68, has appeared before a parole board, and the second time that commissioners found her suitable for release.
“She’s very thankful and relieved,” said Van Houten’s attorney, Rich Pfeiffer. “She’s going home. There’s no question she’s going home. The only question is when.”
Gov. Jerry Brown must now once again decide whether to release her after more than 40 years in prison. Brown rejected her parole last year, concluding that Van Houten — the youngest member of Manson’s so-called family — posed “an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison.”
Her attorneys have long argued that she was only 19 when she took part in the crimes and that she has been a model prisoner. But release has been strongly opposed by the families of the victims as well as prosecutors and many others.
State officials will begin a 120-day legal review of the panel’s finding, and after the process concludes, the decision goes to Brown. The governor would have 30 days to take one of five options. He could uphold, reverse or modify the decision, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Brown could also send the decision to the full Board of Parole, or he could take no action, which would allow Wednesday’s decision to stand.
|From left, Manson followers Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten walk into a morning court session in 1970. When Manson carved an "X" into his forehead during the trial, his "family" members followed suit. ( Los Angeles Times)|
She stabbed victim 14 times
Van Houten has been considered the least blameworthy member of the group and has been portrayed by supporters as a misguided teen under the influence of LSD on the night of the slayings.
A former homecoming queen from Monrovia, she did not join in the Aug. 9, 1969, murders of Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski, and four others at the Benedict Canyon home that Tate was renting.
But the following day, Van Houten was part of a group that stormed into the LaBiancas' home in Los Feliz. As Charles "Tex" Watson stabbed Leno LaBianca, Van Houten and another woman held down Rosemary LaBianca.
After Watson stabbed Rosemary LaBianca with a bayonet, he handed a knife to Van Houten. She testified to stabbing Rosemary in the back at least 14 more times. The blood of the victims was used to scrawl messages on the walls, as had been done at the Benedict Canyon home.
|Leslie Van Houten, shown in 2002, has repeatedly been denied parole. (Peter Phun / Associated Press)|
A long, winding legal process
Van Houten, Manson and three others were convicted and sentenced to death, but after the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, their sentences were commuted to life in prison.
An appellate court overturned Van Houten’s conviction in 1976, and a second trial the following year ended in a hung jury. She was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of conspiracy in her third trial in 1978 and sentenced to seven years to life in prison. Starting in 1979, Van Houten has gone before the parole board regularly.
In recent years, Van Houten’s attorneys characterized her as a model inmate, earning a bachelor’s in English literature and master's degree in humanities while running self-help groups for incarcerated women.
At parole board hearing in 2002, Van Houten said she was “deeply ashamed” of what she had done, adding: “I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson.”
Manson, 82, and other acolytes involved in the slaying are still behind bars. Charles “Tex” Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel have each been denied parole several times. Susan Atkins, who was denied parole 13 times, died in prison in 2009.
‘Shocking nature of the crimes left an indelible mark on society’
A two-member California review board first granted parole to Van Houten in April 2016.
In its first recommendation for release, the board based its decision in part on Van Houten’s age at the time of the crime, her length of incarceration, lack of violent crime as an adult and her spotless prison record: She has never been disciplined for serious misconduct while behind bars.
But Brown last year disagreed, saying in his five-page decision that all of these points were outweighed by other “negative factors that demonstrate she remains unsuitable for parole.”
He said the “shocking nature of the crimes left an indelible mark on society” and that the motive — to trigger a race war “by slaughtering innocent people chosen at random — is equally disturbing.”
In his statement, Brown said it remained unclear how Van Houten had transformed herself from a smart, driven young woman to “a member of one of the most notorious cults in history and an eager participant in the cold-blooded and gory murder of innocent victims.”
At her last parole hearing, she said: "I don't let myself off the hook. I don't find parts in any of this that makes me feel the slightest bit good about myself.”
A SECOND BID
‘She’s going home’
Pfeiffer, Van Houten’s attorney, said Wednesday’s decision by the parole board was an important milestone, calling it “the most difficult one to get.”
The panel was aware that the governor had previously rejected her release but still found her suitable for freedom.
Pfeiffer said he was hopeful that this time around, Brown will set aside public pressure and see that his client has been rehabilitated.
“If he rejects it, we’ll go back to court,” Pfeiffer vowed. “I’m not going away, and she’s going home.”
|Charles Manson is escorted to court for a preliminary hearing in 1969 (Bill Murphy / Los Angeles Times)|