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Board recommends parole for Manson follower Leslie Van Houten for third time

Board recommends parole for Manson follower Leslie Van Houten for third time
Leslie Van Houten appears during a parole hearing at the California Institution for Women in Chino, Calif., on June 5, 2013. (Nick Ut / Associated Press)

Leslie Van Houten, the youngest member of Charles Manson’s “family” who was convicted in the 1969 killings of a Los Angeles couple, was recommended for parole Wednesday by a panel of state commissioners in Chino.

It was the third time that Van Houten, 69, was recommended for parole. Twice before, Gov. Jerry Brown denied her release, finding her “an unreasonable danger to society.”

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Now, the decision heads to newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom in his first high-profile parole decision.

Van Houten’s attorneys have long emphasized that she was only 19 when she took part in the grisly slayings of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, and argued that she has been a model prisoner. But release has been strongly opposed by the families of the victims as well as prosecutors and many others.

State officials will begin a 120-day legal review before the decision goes to Newsom’s desk. He could uphold, reverse or modify the decision, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Newsom could take no action, thereby allowing the decision to stand, or he could direct the full Board of Parole Hearings to consider it.

A former homecoming queen from Monrovia, Van Houten did not participate in the 1969 killings of Sharon Tate — Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife — and four others at the couple’s Benedict Canyon home.

But the next day, she joined Charles “Tex” Watson and others as they burst into the LaBiancas’ Los Feliz residence and killed the husband and wife.

After Watson stabbed Rosemary LaBianca with a bayonet, he handed a knife to Van Houten. She testified to stabbing LaBianca in the back at least 14 more times. The blood of the victims was used to scrawl messages on the walls, as had been done at the Benedict Canyon home.

Van Houten, Manson and three others were convicted and sentenced to death, but after the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty their sentences were commuted to life in prison.

An appellate court overturned Van Houten’s conviction in 1976, and a second trial the next year ended in a hung jury. At her third trial, in 1978, she was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of conspiracy, and sentenced to seven years to life in prison. Starting in 1979, Van Houten has gone before the parole board regularly.

At parole hearings, Van Houten’s attorneys characterized her as a model inmate, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and master’s in humanities while running self-help groups for incarcerated women.

“I take responsibility for the entire crime. I take responsibility going back to Manson being able to do what he did to all of us. I allowed it,” she told a panel of parole commissioners at her most recent hearing in 2017.

“I learned that I was weak in character. I was easy to give over my belief system to someone else,” she said, adding, “I sought peer attention and acceptance more than I did my own foundation. That I looked to men for my value, and I didn’t speak up.”

At that hearing, the parole commissioners found her suitable for release, but Brown disagreed and reversed the decision. The governor said in 2018 that “the aggravated nature of the crime alone can provide a valid basis for denying parole, even when there is strong evidence of rehabilitation and no other evidence of current dangerousness.”

Van Houten’s attorney appealed in L.A. County Superior Court, but a judge refused to overturn Brown’s decision.

Manson died in 2017 of natural causes at a California hospital while serving a life sentence.

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