As a young journalist in 1969, I was assigned to cover the highly sensational trial of the so-called Manson family. They were accused of the gruesome murders of, among others, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Almost 50 years after the killings here in Los Angeles, former Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten is again eligible for parole, and a state panel recently recommended her release. But the ultimate decision rests with Gov. Jerry Brown, who in 2016 said Van Houten posed “an unreasonable risk to society.”
That wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. I believe that Van Houten, who was just 19 at the time of the killings and is now 68, has earned her freedom.
Never as a working journalist did I express my opinion on the trials I covered. Now, however, I feel compelled to speak out — not regarding Van Houten’s culpability, which not even she denies, but on the fairness of keeping her behind bars this long. I believe she is being punished because she was associated with Manson, who at 82 remains in prison and whose toxic name clings like poison to those who followed him. Judged independently, she likely would have been released years ago.
Though many link her to the slayings of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others, Van Houten was not present on the night of those killings. There also was a question of whether Van Houten, prodded by others to join the mayhem, stabbed Rosemary LaBianca 14 times before or after she was dead. (Legally, it doesn’t matter; clearly she’s guilty of murder.)
During her incarceration, Van Houten has demonstrated remorse and, in my first-hand assessment, she is living proof that redemption is possible even for those whose crimes are unforgivable.
Shortly after my 2015 retirement, Van Houten wrote to me to thank me for my fair coverage of her many proceedings, and I asked whether I could visit her at the California Institution for Women in Corona. I admit I was curious. I’d sat across from this woman in courtrooms and parole rooms for nearly half a century — three trials and 19 parole hearings — but we’d never spoken.
I’ve now visited Van Houten four times. We sit outside at picnic tables with other inmates, and our conversations typically last three to four hours. And, yes, we talk about the crimes and the Manson family, though in shorthand since we both know the details by heart. I take notes.
Manson, Van Houten and two other female followers, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, were convicted together and sentenced to death. Those sentences were commuted to life when the death penalty was temporarily outlawed in California in 1972. Atkins died of cancer in 2009.
In a strange twist, Van Houten’s conviction was overturned because her lawyer disappeared toward the trial’s end and later was found dead. Her second trial lasted nine months, and the jury deadlocked. In a third trial, she was convicted of the LaBianca murders and sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole after seven years. That was in 1978.
Over the course of my visits with Van Houten, I’ve learned that she has spent decades in therapy to understand how she fell under Manson’s control. She was an unlikely killer, a Monrovia High School homecoming princess from a good family who lost her way and joined Manson’s cult. She once told me: “I could not have lived without paying for what I did.”
But she has paid. At issue is whether a person who earns her release through hard work over many years should be treated differently because her case was in the headlines.
The woman I’ve gotten to know in recent months seems nothing like the girl once controlled by Manson’s brainwashing and hallucinatory drugs. She told me that she had long ago decided that she could become either a sour old woman or someone useful, even in prison. She chose the latter, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and a master’s with a scholarly thesis on women in prison.
I saw in my visits that she is respected not only by her fellow inmates but also by prison staff. She counsels other inmates and participates in numerous self-help groups. She has worked on the statewide Restorative Justice Program for prisons.
Manson trial co-prosecutor Stephen Kay once said that he believed Van Houten would be the first Manson family member released “when she is an old lady.” Take a look at the pictures from her latest parole hearing. She is wrinkled and gray-haired — an old lady.
It would be ridiculous for Brown to claim again that Van Houten remains a danger to society. Upon release, she will live in a setting where she can help other women transition out of custody. She also will stand as a symbol of hope for other inmates that if they obey the rules and work hard enough to transform themselves, anything is possible.
Linda Deutsch retired as a special correspondent for the Associated Press after covering high-profile national trials for nearly half a century. She is working on a memoir.
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