GOVERNOR BROWNS RULING ON LESLIE VAN HOUTEN’S PAROLE RECOMMENDATION
Jan. 19 – Governor Jerry Brown has reversed Leslie Van Houten’s September 6th parole recommendation. The ruling was sent out by Brown’s press secretary today, and reads as follows.
In the late summer of 1968, 19-year-old Leslie Van Houten met Charles Manson and began living at Spahn Ranch. She was one of the youngest members of his cult, known as “the Family.” Manson believed that a civilization-ending war between the races — Helter Skelter – was imminent, and that the Family would emerge from hiding in the desert at the end of the war to take control of the world. By 1969, the Family’s members, including Van Houten, ardently embraced Manson’s apocalyptic and warped worldview. Manson eventually came to believe that the Family would have to trigger the race war by committing atrocious, high-profile murders of white victims to incite retaliatory violence against black people. (See People v. Manson (1976) 61 Cal.App.3d 102, 127-30). At some point, Manson approached Van Houten and asked her “if she was crazy enough to believe in him and what he was doing.” She responded, “Yes.”
On August 9, 1969, several Family members carried out the gruesome murders of Abigail Folger, Wojiciech Frykowski, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, and the eight-month pregnant Sharon Tate. Van Houten did not participate in the Tate murders, but she heard about them the next day from the news and Family members and reported that she felt “left out.”
On August 10, 1969, Manson instructed Van Houten and other Family members that the murders the previous night had been “too messy.” Manson told them they were going out again that night and he would show them how it should be done. As instructed by Manson, Van Houten took a change of clothes with her in case her clothes got bloody. At Manson’s direction, Linda Kasabian drove Manson, Van Houten, Charles “Tex” Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Steve Grogan around for hours, making stops to allow Manson to locate potential murder victims. The group eventually stopped at the home of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.
Manson entered the LaBianca home, tied up the couple, and returned to the car with Mrs. LaBianca’s wallet. His plan was to plant the wallet in an area with a large African-American population so they would be blamed for the murders, which in turn would initiate the race war. Manson told Van Houten, Krenwinkel, and Watson to go into the house. Once inside the LaBianca home, Watson told Van Houten and Krenwinkel to take Mrs. LaBianca into her bedroom and kill her. Krenwinkel retrieved knives from the kitchen and gave one to Van Houten. Van Houten put a pillowcase over Mrs. LaBianca’s head and wrapped a lamp cord around her neck. Mrs. LaBianca could hear the guttural sounds of her husband being stabbed to death by Watson in the other room. She grabbed the lamp and tried to escape, but Van Houten knocked the lamp out of her hands and wrestled her back to the bed. Van Houten then pinned Mrs. LaBianca down while Krenwinkel stabbed her. Krenwinkel stabbed Mrs. LaBianca with so much force that the knife blade bent on Mrs. LaBianca’s collarbone. Van Houten summoned Watson for assistance, and he came in the room with a bayonet. Watson stabbed Mrs. LaBianca several times with the bayonet and then handed a knife to Van Houten and told her to “do something.” Van Houten said she “felt” Mrs. LaBianca was dead at that point, but she “didn’t know for sure.” She continued stabbing Mrs. LaBianca at least 16 times. Mrs. LaBianca was stabbed a total of 41 times according to autopsy reports. Mr. LaBianca had 13 stab wounds, in addition to scratches, and 14 puncture wounds from a carving fork which was left sticking out of his stomach. A knife was also found protruding from his neck. The word “War” was scratched on his stomach.
After the murders, Van Houten thoroughly wiped away fingerprints from the house while Krenwinkel painted “Death to the Pigs” on a wall in the living room, “Rise” over a door, and “Healter (sic) Skelter” on a refrigerator door using Mr. LaBianca’s blood. Van Houten changed into Mrs. LaBianca’s clothes and drank chocolate milk from the LaBianca’s refrigerator before leaving. Back at Spahn Ranch, she burned Mrs. LaBianca’s clothes and counted the money taken from the home. According to Family member Dianne Lake, Van Houten told her that “she had stabbed a woman who was already dead, and that the more she did it the more fun it was.”
While the residents of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas remained in terror, Van Houten hid out for over two months at a remote location in Death Valley hoping to seek refuge in the “bottomless pit” and fulfill Manson’s prophecy. She was not arrested until November 25, 1969.
The question I must answer is whether Leslie Van Houten will pose a current danger to the public if released from prison. The circumstances of the crime can provide evidence of current dangerousness when the record also establishes that something in the inmate’s pre- or post-incarceration history, or the inmate’s current demeanor and mental state, indicate that the circumstances of the crime remain probative of current dangerousness. (In re Lawrence (2008) 44 Cal. 4th 1181, 1214.) Additionally, I am required to give “great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the prisoner” when determining a youthful offender’s suitability for parole. (Pen. Code, § 4801, subd. (c).) I am also required to give “great weight to any information or evidence that, at the time of the commission of the crime, the prisoner had experienced intimate partner battering.” (Pen. Code, § 4801, subd. (b)(1).) In rare circumstances, 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. (In re Lawrence, supra, at 1211, 1214.)
The Board of Parole Hearings found Van Houten suitable for parole on September 6, 2017, based on her growth and maturity while incarcerated, development of pro-social thought processes and healthy coping mechanisms, educational achievements, lack of a significant juvenile or adult record, stable social history as an adult, expression of remorse and acceptance of responsibility, low risk of future violence, and parole plans.
I acknowledge that Van Houten’s crime was committed when she was 19 years old and that she has since been incarcerated for 48 years. She is 68 years old and has made laudable strides in self-improvement in prison. The psychologist who evaluated her in 2016 noted that during Van Houten’s incarceration, she has “exhibited pro-social behaviors throughout most of her imprisonment.” She has never been disciplined for serious misconduct during her incarceration. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and has received exceptional work ratings as a tutor for the past decade. She also received positive commendations from staff, including several in 2017. She has participated in and facilitated numerous self-help programs, including Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, Victim Offender Education Group, and Relapse Prevention. She served as Parliamentarian of the Women’s Advisory Council. I carefully examined the record for evidence demonstrating Van Houten’s increased maturity and rehabilitation, and gave great weight to all the factors relevant to her diminished culpability as a juvenile: her immaturity and impetuosity, her failure to appreciate risks and consequences, her dysfunctional home environment, the peer pressures that affected her, and her other hallmark features of youth. I also gave great weight to her subsequent growth in prison during my consideration of her suitability for parole, as well as evidence that she had been the victim of intimate partner battering at the hands of Manson. However, these factors are outweighed by negative factors that demonstrate she remains unsuitable for parole.
In the summer of 1969, Van Houten and other members of the Manson family began their quest to start a civilization-ending war between the races — known as Helter Skelter— by committing atrocious, high-profile murders to incite retaliatory violence. Van Houten played a vital part in the LaBianca murders, one of the most notorious of the Manson Family crimes. She chose to enter the LaBianca home, brutally stabbed Mrs. LaBianca numerous times, and then helped clean up the scene and dispose of evidence. The devastation and loss experienced by the LaBianca family and all the victims’ families continues today.
The murders alone are not the only evidence that Van Houten remains unsuitable for parole. She has long downplayed her role in these murders and in the Manson Family, and her minimization of her role continues today. At her 2017 parole hearing, Van Houten claimed full responsibility for her crimes. However, she still shifted blame for her own actions onto Manson to some extent, saying, “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 later stated, “I accept responsibility that I allowed [Manson] to conduct my life in that way.”
Van Houten’s statements show that she still has not come to terms with her central role in these murders and in the Manson Family. Van Houten told the 2016 psychologist that when asked to join Charles Manson’s “utopia” at the Spahn Ranch, she “bit into it, hook, line and sinker.” By her own account, she idolized Manson and wanted to please him. At her 2017 hearing, VanHouten explained that she “desperately wanted to be what [Manson] envisioned us being.” She admitted that following the Tate murders, she wanted to participate in the LaBianca murders because she “wanted to go and commit to the cause, too.” Van Houten told the Board she committed the crimes in order to “prove my dedication to the revolution and what I knew would need to be done to, um, have proved myself to Manson.”
As the Los Angeles Superior Court found last year, Van Houten’s recent statements, “specifically her 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,” have demonstrated a lack of insight into her crimes. “[She] was not violent before she met Manson, but upon meeting such a manipulative individual she chose to participate in the cold-blooded murder of multiple innocent victims.” The court continued, “While it is unlikely [Van Houten] could ever find another Manson-like figure if released, her susceptibility to dependence and her inability to fully recognize why she willingly participated in her life crime provides a nexus between the commitment offense and her current mental state, demonstrating she poses a danger to society if released on parole.”
Van Houten has made admirable efforts at self-improvement while incarcerated and appears more willing today to accept responsibility for the part she played in these crimes. I considered and gave great weight to evidence in the record that Manson was clearly abusive to her and other Family members at the time of the crime. But even today, almost five decades later, Van Houten has not wholly accepted responsibility for her role in the violent and brutal deaths of Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca.
These crimes stand apart from others by their heinous nature and shocking motive. 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. As our Supreme Court has acknowledged, in rare cases, the circumstances of a crime can provide a basis for denying parole. This is exactly such a case.
Therefore, for all the above reasons, I reverse the decision to parole Leslie Van Houten.
Decision Date: January 19, 2018
EDMUND G. BROWN JR.
Governor, State of California