An appellate court delayed a decision on the potential release of Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten after a short hearing Wednesday morning in downtown Los Angeles.
The hearing follows a years-long saga that has seen a board recommend her parole three separate times. Former Gov. Jerry Brown twice overruled the parole board’s recommendation; Gov. Gavin Newsom is set to make a ruling on the third recommendation shortly.
Van Houten’s case was heard Wednesday before California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal. The appellate judges, who were weighing whether to uphold a lower court’s ruling denying her parole, raised questions about what would happen if Newsom were to make his decision on the parole board’s third recommendation before the court returned its decision.
The four-justice panel said it would defer a ruling until it received arguments from both sides addressing whether the appellate case would be moot if Newsom were to issue his decision before the court rules.
Van Houten was 19 when she and fellow cult members stabbed Los Angeles grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, to death at their Los Feliz home in 1969. The killings took place a day after other so-called Manson family members murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others in crimes that shocked the world.
Van Houten, who was sentenced to seven years to life in prison in 1978, was only involved in the LaBianca killings. The former Monrovia High School homecoming princess was the youngest member of the so-called Manson family. She testified to stabbing Rosemary LaBianca at least 14 times on the night of the slayings.
Van Houten was not at Wednesday’s hearing, but a group of former inmates from the California Institution for Women in Chino, where Van Houten has long been incarcerated, came to show their support. Connie Keel-LaFleur, who said she was incarcerated with Van Houten for nearly three decades before being released in 2009, described Van Houten as a friend and “role model” to other inmates.
Van Houten’s attorney, Rich Pfeiffer, argued that his 69-year-old client deserved to be released because she had satisfied every aspect of rehabilitation and no longer presents any risk to society. Prosecutors continued to vigorously fight Van Houten’s release because of the seriousness of the crimes.
Every year since 2016, a parole board has recommended that Van Houten deserves to be released. Brown, in blocking Van Houten’s release twice, said she had failed to explain how she transformed from an upstanding teen to a killer and that she laid too much of the blame on Manson.
The panel asked Pfeiffer to cite specific instances where Van Houten had expressed remorse to the families of her victims. They also raised questions about whether Van Houten had minimized her own role in the gruesome killings when discussing Manson’s control over her.
Pfeiffer said Van Houten took full responsibility for her role in the crimes, and added that his client had gained a personal understanding of the sway that Manson had held over her. “If she didn’t understand that, there could be a potential risk that she could get out and someone else could control her,” Pfeiffer told the justices.
During the course of the hearing, the panel and Pfeiffer also briefly disputed the course of events on that night in Los Feliz nearly a half-century ago.
“You’re just saying she was a poor assassin,” one of the justices shot back after Pfeiffer argued that Van Houten had “failed as the solider she was trained to be” and showed hesitation at one point during the night of the murders.
Courts can be reluctant to interfere in matters of parole, according to Samuel Pillsbury, a criminal law professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
“It is highly emotional,” Pillsbury said. “The voters have decided the governor should have a veto on this so the courts would prefer to let this process play out.”
If the decision comes down to the governor, Pillsbury said, Van Houten has an uphill battle because of the infamy of the Manson murders.
“The Manson case is one of a kind,” he said. “There’s no other case like it in terms of the number of people in California who feel strongly about it, who’ve lived through it. The entire state and much of the nation still feel some degree of trauma from that, and it makes it a very different kind of case from an elected official’s point of view.”
Manson died of natural causes in 2017 at a California hospital while serving a life sentence.
Pfeiffer acknowledged after the hearing that the decision to release Van Houten would be unpopular to a large portion of the public.
“But the courts have a duty to enforce the law, whether it’s an unpopular choice or not,” he added. “Otherwise, the mob will take over.”
Pfeiffer and the prosecution have five days to prepare their supplemental briefs for the justices before the court makes a ruling.