Severity of crime prevents parole for Manson ‘family member’
In many ways, Leslie Van Houten was a normal teen-ager.
She was a homecoming queen and class secretary, and participated in Campfire Girls and Job’s Daughters. She sang in the choir, went to youth fellowships and enjoyed church camp every summer.
In other respects, her life exhibited dangerous instability. At age 14, she began using marijuana, Methedrine, mescaline and Benzedrine. She reported taking 150 “trips” on LSD by the age of 19 and was pregnant at 15. But that was just the beginning of Van Houten’s problems.
In 1969, Van Houten heard about a commune at the Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, Calif., and joined “The Family,” originally from the Haight-Ashbury, which included Charles Tex Watkins, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Linda Kasabian, Steven Grogran and Charles Manson. Manson believed the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” was warning him of a bloody, civilization-ending race war between blacks and whites, and he wanted to participate by murdering whites and implicating blacks. At first, life on the commune was idyllic.
Tate and La Bianca murders
However, on the evening of Aug. 8, 1969, Manson ordered his family to commit the Tate murders: five innocent victims clubbed, shot and stabbed multiple times. Van Houten was not present and felt “left out.”
The next day, Manson, upset because the previous evening had been “too messy,” took group members, including Van Houten, to the La Biancas. After subduing Mr. and Mrs. La Bianca, Manson left the scene. Van Houten put a pillowcase over Mrs. La Bianca’s head and wrapped a lamp cord around her neck while Mr. La Bianca was being stabbed by Watson. Mrs. La Bianca broke loose and was ultimately wrestled onto a bed by Van Houten, where Krenwinkel stabbed her, followed by Watson.
Then, Van Houten stabbed her 16 times.
Later, she said “The more I did it, the more fun it was.” Van Houten wiped away fingerprints while Krenwinkel wrote racist remarks on the walls in blood to make it look as though “Blacks” had committed the crime, then left in Mrs. La Bianca’s clean clothing.
Ultimately the group was caught and tried. Van Houten was convicted of first-degree murder, which was overturned on appeal because of the strange, mid-trial disappearance of her attorney. She was re-tried, but the jury deadlocked, resulting in a mistrial. She was tried a third time and convicted.
Van Houten was an exemplary prisoner since her incarceration in 1969. She participated in leadership self-help, service, education, counseling, religious programs and completed her work assignments as a clerk. She has a job awaiting her should she ever leave prison. She plans to continue her college education and become an editor. She has been denied parole 11 times since she first became eligible in 1978.
On her 12th try at parole, she succeeded in getting a judge to rule in her favor, suggesting she should be let out of prison. That decision was appealed by the Board of Prison Terms, arguing that parole should be denied because the crime was carried out in an especially cruel and callous manner, with multiple victims and an inexplicable motive, very trivial in relation to the offense, and finally, that the victims were mutilated and the crime made to look like a racial killing to perpetuate Charles Manson’s warped Helter Skelter.
Van Houten argued she was mentally incapacitated by cult brainwashing and that Mrs. La Bianca was probably dead when she stabbed her. She claimed the evidence in the parole record demonstrating her good institutional behavior was ignored and outweighed the gravity of the offense.
The Court of Appeal overruled the trial court and found there was evidence in the proceedings to document that the Board of Prison Terms had thoroughly considered the evidence of Van Houten’s good behavior, and that consideration of public safety requires a more lengthy period of incarceration, which will result in her being less dangerous than she is at the present time.
Today, 51-year-old Leslie Van Houten remains in the California Institution for Women. She shouldn’t plan on leaving any time soon.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter–Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Bipartisan McPherson Commission and the California Fair Political Practices Commission. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the firm’s Web site, http://www.portersimon.com.