“If the word ‘Manson’ was not attached to Leslie, she would have been out 20 years ago,” attorney Richard Pfeiffer told me about his client, convicted Manson “family” killer Leslie Van Houten, who is serving a life sentence for her role in two 1969 murders. On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown reversed a parole board recommendation to parole Van Houten, 66, because she is remorseful, has accepted responsibility for her crimes, and no longer poses a danger to society. “As our Supreme Court has acknowledged,” Brown wrote, “in rare circumstances a crime is so atrocious that it provides evidence of current dangerousness by itself.”
To people my age, Manson, now 81, is best remembered as the deranged cult leader who led followers to kill five people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, at the Los Angeles home she rented with her husband, director Roman Polanski, in August 1969. The next night, Manson brought Van Houten and others to the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, who later were found dead with the words “Death to pigs” and “Rise” scrawled in blood on their walls. These killings were brutal, premeditated acts of terrorism designed to spark Manson’s envisioned race war between black and white. Manson called the coming war “Helter Skelter.”
In 1971, a court found Van Houten guilty and sentenced her to death. Her capital sentence was commuted to life when the California Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty. Problems with her lawyers won Van Houten a retrial, which resulted in a hung jury, then a guilty verdict, and a sentence of life with the possibility of parole.
Pfieffer sees Van Houten at age 19 as the youngest, “most vulnerable” Manson killer. She was not part of the murderous squad who came to Tate’s home. While she helped restrain Rosemary LaBianca and stabbed her at least 16 times, Van Houten claims LaBianca already was dead. Since her conviction, Van Houten has expressed remorse and worked to improve herself. In her 46 years in prison, Van Houten earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, volunteered as a mentor to other inmates, and stayed out of trouble. She fits the very model of redemption.
I asked Jeff Guinn, author of the exhaustive book, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, if he thought Van Houten should win parole. Guinn said he was unqualified to make that determination, but added, “The only thing I feel I can say with any certainty is that if the decision had been made to let her out, she would not have presented any danger to society.” Guinn was impressed at Van Houten’s unflinching disclosure about what she did, when others might have tried to snow him.
Brown is skeptical of Van Houten’s transformation. LaBianca grandson Tony LaMontagne cut to the chase when he sent a statement to the parole board that asked, “Why are we actually here?”
I believe that if Van Houten is truly remorseful, then she should accept that her punishment is to spend her days repenting in a correctional facility. I don’t make light of prison and the loss of autonomy. But life behind bars is a fitting sentence for torture/murder committed for no other reason than to terrorize. Manson’s design was to terrorize our civil society. Van Houten tried to burn down our house. She doesn’t get to come back in.
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