Leslie Van Houten of Monrovia was just a teenager when she helped kill Rosemary LaBianca on Aug. 9, 1969. Her mind was arguably muddled by drug use, as well as by the hold that Charles Manson and his cult-like “family” exerted over her. Her death sentence was thrown out more than 40 years ago, and she has spent most of her life eligible for parole yet still in prison. She has repeatedly expressed remorse for her crime. There is no evidence that she would pose a danger to anyone. Isn’t it time that California released her?
Inexplicably, some find the call to be an easy one. Hard-liners will argue that brutal murderers like Van Houten forever give up any right to liberty or even life. Others express outrage that the state would keep a person locked up decades after the crime merely to satisfy some inchoate societal urge for retribution, long after the other reasons we put people in prison — to prevent them from committing new crimes, to deter others from following their bad example, to rehabilitate them — no longer apply.
But for most people who sincerely grapple with the question, it is a very difficult, emotionally wrenching and intellectually vexing call indeed. Now that Van Houten has for the second time been found suitable for parole by a state parole panel, it falls to Gov. Jerry Brown — also for the second time — to decide whether to uphold that decision. A year ago, he said no. He was right then, and he should say no again. But it’s complicated.
Van Houten joined other Manson family murderers on the second night of a killing spree, invading the Los Feliz home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and terrorizing the couple before killing them. Van Houten held down Rosemary LaBianca as others stabbed her. Then Van Houten herself plunged a knife into the victim more than a dozen times. The killers wrote messages on the walls using their victims’ blood.
It was a particularly gruesome and horrific murder, but it was also an act of terrorism. Manson intended to wage a race war, and he wanted the murders to get the project underway by putting the city in a state of panic.
To an extent, he and his followers succeeded. Unsolved for weeks, the killings frightened Los Angeles in the late summer of 1969. In rejecting parole last year, Brown noted that the “shocking nature of the crimes left an indelible mark on society.”
It did — yet we are given pause. A sentence and subsequent parole decisions should take into account the fact that the criminals hoped to instigate terror, but that doesn’t mean that the punishment should depend on how much attention a particular crime generated, whether the victims included movie stars or whether the assailants were a headline-magnet like Manson and his young, mostly female spellbound hangers-on. Crimes should not be punished because they were among the defining horrors of a particular generation, but rather because they were crimes.
Van Houten’s crime resulted in a sentence of death in 1971. This page opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and would oppose such a sentence for Van Houten were she facing it today.
But just because we are morally opposed to execution does not automatically mean we reject any form of retribution — as opposed to mere deterrence — for crimes with a particularly corrosive effect on society. Retribution should be meted out sparingly and should be balanced with mercy. But it has a valid role.
As it happens, court rulings in 1972 declared the state’s process for imposing the death penalty unconstitutional, leaving Van Houten and other death-row inmates with sentences of life in prison with the possibility of parole. Even quirkier circumstances complicate her case. Her lawyer died during trial, causing an appeals court to grant her a new trial in 1977, resulting in her being sentenced to seven years to life.
We don’t argue that Van Houten should be denied any chance at parole, or that her youth or her drug-impaired brain should never be taken into account. But although she may have been unclear on the details of Manson’s insane plot to foment terror, stitched together from various Beatles lyrics, she knew what she was doing. Although she was a teenager when she killed, she was legally an adult. There necessarily is an element of randomness in any line-drawing exercise.
It would be fair to ask when Van Houten should be released if not now. Never? We don’t say never. But we look at her crime and its role in a plan to destabilize society and we must say — not yet.
4:30 p.m.: This editorial was edited again to clarify how death row inmates in California in the early 1970s were affected by rulings invalidating the death penalty.