Opinion: Readers have strong — and evolving — feelings on paroling Leslie Van Houten

Leslie Van Houten arrives with her attorney for a parole hearing in Corona in 2017.
Leslie Van Houten arrives with her attorney for a parole hearing in Corona in 2017. On Tuesday, she was released after 53 years in prison.
(Stan Lim / Associated Press)

The Manson “family” killings of 1969 and subsequent trials were before my time, but their terrifying hold on the collective imagination in Southern California was obvious to me as a kid growing up in Glendale in the 1980s and 90s. We weren’t familiar with the awful details, thankfully, but I recall knowing enough to sometimes call whichever kid was “it” on the playground Charles Manson. Adults didn’t like that.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that readers who remember the brutal murders of seven people in Los Angeles over two nights in August 1969, plus two more murders on other days, have strong opinions about paroling former Manson follower Leslie Van Houten. In fact, I have never seen such intense interest by our letter writers in the fate of any other incarcerated person, which may help explain why recommendations for her parole have been reversed five times by two different governors.

This time, Gov. Gavin Newsom declined to fight a state appeals court decision that Van Houten should be granted parole, and on Tuesday she left the California Institution for Women in Corona after 53 years in prison. Perhaps as a sign of how views on criminal justice and public safety have evolved in recent years, about half of the letters on Van Houten’s parole have expressed support for it, a greater portion than any time before.



To the editor: Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. Stab. And after stabbing her victim 14 times, Van Houten helped cut her up.

Opposing her release from prison is not an act of vengeance. It is called justice, and being a model prisoner has nothing to do with it.

Kelly Gallagher, Santa Ana


To the editor: There is one factor that has not been discussed regarding the decision to parole Van Houten.

She was out on bail for seven months in 1977-78 during her retrial, the only active participant in the Tate-LaBianca murders allowed outside prison for any reason.


What crimes did the 20-something Van Houten commit when she was free? None.

She wasn’t a threat to the public 45 years ago, but as a society we don’t usually let convicted murderers out after less than a decade behind bars. But now she is elderly and has been incarcerated for the better part of six decades, it is time to let her go.

I don’t feel the same about paroling her co-participants Charles “Tex” Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel, who murdered seven people, including the pregnant Sharon Tate. But Van Houten has paid her debt to society.

Ron Shinkman, Northridge


To the editor: How is it that Stanley “Tookie” Williams, who showed some degree of remorse and rehabilitation in the form of writing children’s books, was executed, and the Manson “family” killers were not?

Gov. Gavin Newsom should have stood his ground on Van Houten’s parole for the sake of the victims’ families.

The fact that this state doesn’t carry out death sentences should be considered by the parole board before ever allowing such criminals to see the light of day, however briefly, before their final judgment from which there will be no parole.


Art Peck, Los Angeles


To the editor: I think we forget that in many ways, who we were at 19 is very very different than who we are at Van Houten’s age of 73 (I’m 70).

At 19, I too joined a cult, although not a violent one. I broke many laws on drugs and driving — I was just not caught.

Prison is a punishment, but there is also supposed to be some rehabilitative aspect to it.

What Van Houten did can never be forgotten or forgiven, but she has apparently used her prison years to remake herself into a useful member of her society. Statistically, it seems older (or old) prisoners are much less likely to re-offend than their juniors.

It’s hard to imagine Van Houten will find another “master” and go on another killing spree.

Anne Beaty, Los Angeles



To the editor: Prisoner rights advocates argue that a murderer’s current danger to society should be a determinative factor for parole.

To the contrary, whether Van Houten or any murderer is currently dangerous shouldn’t play any role in deciding whether such convicts are released.

Justice demands that once a person murders another, the convict permanently forfeits the right to rejoin society. Releasing any murderer while his or her victims remain dead is not justice. “Therapy and reflection,” as one letter writer put it, do not justify a murderer’s release.

In arguing for Van Houten’s release, one reader notes that the “murders were truly awful, but what murder isn’t?” Exactly — no murderer should ever be released from prison.

Ray McKown, Torrance



To the editor: It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that while there’s a lot of tut-tutting about this terrible incident more than half a century ago, as modern mass murders go it hardly moves the needle.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves why there’s so much attention paid to keeping someone in jail far beyond where they’d normally be paroled for this crime, and yet we can’t seem to muster the will to be able to deal with crimes of similar or worse severity that seem to happen on a regular basis.

Martin Usher, Thousand Oaks