Officials are recommending one-time Charles Manson devotee Leslie Van Houten receive parole in her conviction for a pair of 1969 murders and conspiracy to kill five others, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Before Gov. Gavin Newsom can act on the recommendation, the Board of Parole Hearings will undertake a 150-day review process. The first 120 days are earmarked for board staff “to review all the facts and matters of law related to the decision,” the department said in a statement.
Newsom can uphold the recommendation, reverse it, modify it, send it back to the board for review or take no action. No action would mean parole for Van Houten.
Van Houten, 69, is serving a life sentence at the California Institute for Women in Corona. She and others were convicted in the murders of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary.
Van Houten was sentenced to death in 1971, but one year later the death penalty was overturned. Her first conviction was overturned, too, because her lawyer died before that trial ended. She was tried twice more — one ending in a hung jury — and was sentenced to life in prison following a 1978 guilty verdict.
In denying her parole last year, then-Gov. Jerry Brown outlined the case against Van Houten, saying she put a pillowcase over Rosemary LaBianca’s head, wrapped a lamp cord around her neck, wrestled her onto a bed and pinned her down while Patricia Krenwinkel and Charles “Tex” Watson stabbed her dozens of times. Van Houten then stabbed her more, Brown wrote.
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She holed up in Death Valley for two months before her November 25, 1969, arrest, he wrote.
In a 1994 prison interview, Van Houten described her part in the killings.
“I went in and Mrs. LaBianca was laying on the floor and I stabbed her,” said Van Houten, who was 19 at the time of the murders. “In the lower back, around 16 times.”
Though she was not directly involved in the August 9, 1969, killings of five people at the home of film director Roman Polanski, she was convicted of conspiring to murder the victims, including Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. Also killed at the home were Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent and Jay Sebring.
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Van Houten took part in the LaBianca murders the following night. She has apologized to the family, earned two college degrees, tutored her fellow inmates and has been described as a model prisoner, officials say.
A blurb for a 2001 book about Van Houten says, “To everyone who encountered Leslie — including prison staff and television journalists — she was not the demon typically portrayed by the media, but rather a gentle, generous spirit who mourned her victims.”
Wednesday’s recommendation for parole came after Van Houten’s 22nd appeal, but it is not the first time a panel has recommended she receive a reprieve.
Brown reversed similar recommendations in July 2016 and January 2018. Last year, he said his decision hinged on the heinous nature of the murders and Van Houten’s marginalization of her role in them.
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He noted she had not been violent before her introduction to Manson and cited a 2017 Los Angeles Superior Court motion in which a judge was troubled by Van Houten’s “inability to discuss her role in the Manson Family and LaBianca murders without imputing some responsibility to her drug use and her danger of falling prey to the influence of other people because of her dependent personality.”
Brown concluded, “By her own behavior, Van Houten has shown she is capable of extraordinary violence. There is no question that Van Houten was both fully committed to the radical beliefs of the Manson Family and that she actively contributed to a bloody horror that terrorized the nation.”
A site promoted by Sharon Tate’s sister, Debra, calls for all Manson family members to remain in prison for life. A change.org petition linked to the site garnered more than 160,000 signatories demanding Van Houten’s parole be denied again.
Since 2016, California Manson family members Charles Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Bobby Beausoleil and Bruce Davis have been denied bids for parole. Manson died of natural causes in 2017. He was 83.