GOVERNOR NEWSOM’S RULING ON LESLIE VAN HOUTEN’S PAROLE RECOMMENDATION
Jun. 3 – In the summer of 1968, 19-year-old Leslie Van Houten met Charles Manson and began living as a member of Manson’s cult, “the Family.” Members of the cult subscribed to Mr. Manson’s belief that “Helter Skelter,” a civilization ending race-war, was imminent. Mr. Manson planned to hide in the desert with the Family until the conclusion of Helter Skelter, when the Family would take control of the world. In the late summer of 1969, Mr. Manson believed that it was the Family’s responsibility to initiate Helter Skelter by committing murders of white victims in order to incite retaliatory violence against black people.
On August 8, 1969, Charles Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian, all members of the Family, drove to the home of Sharon Tate, where they killed her, Steve Parent, Abigail Folger, Wojiciech Fryowski, and Jay Sebring. Ms. Tate, who was eight months pregnant, was stabbed 16 times. Mr. Parent was shot five times. Ms. Folger was stabbed 28 times. Mr. Fryowski was stabbed 51 times, shot twice, and suffered 13 scalp lacerations. Mr. Sebring was stabbed seven times and shot once.
Two days later, on August 10, 1969, Mr. Manson, Ms. Van Houten, Mr. Watson, Ms. Krenwinkel, Ms. Kasabian, and another member of the Family, Steve Grogan, drove to the home of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca. Mr. Manson and Mr. Watson went inside the house, tied Mr. and Mrs. La Bianca up, took Mrs. La Bianca’s wallet, and returned to the group outside. Mr. Manson instructed Ms. Van Houten and Ms. Krenwinkel to go inside the house and do whatever Mr. Watson instructed them to do. Mr. Manson, Mr. Grogan, and Ms. Kasabian drove away. Ms. Van Houten, Ms. Krenwinkel, and Mr. Watson entered the La Biancas’ house. Mr. Watson, armed with a bayonet, ordered the La Biancas to hand over their cash. Mrs. La Bianca gave him a small box of money. Mr. Watson told Ms. Van Houten and Ms. Krenwinkel to take Mrs. La Bianca into the bedroom and kill her. Ms. Van Houten and Ms. Krenwinkel took her into a bedroom, and Ms. Krenwinkel retrieved two knives from the kitchen. Ms. Van Houten put a pillowcase over Mrs. La Bianca’s head and wrapped a lamp cord around her neck.
In the living room, Mr. Watson covered Mr. La Bianca’s head with a pillowcase, tied his hands behind his back with a leather thong, and tied an electrical cord around his neck. Mr. Watson stabbed Mr. La Bianca multiple times.
Upon hearing her husband struggle, Mrs. La Bianca forced her way up from the bed, grabbed the lamp, and swung it at Ms. Van Houten. Ms. Van Houten knocked the lamp from Mrs. La Bianca’s hands, wrestled her back onto the bed, and pinned her down. Ms. Krenwinkel stabbed Mrs. La Bianca in the collar bone, causing the blade to bend. Ms. Van Houten called for Mr. Watson, who came into the room and stabbed Mrs. La Bianca eight times. Mr. Watson handed Ms. Van Houten a knife and instructed her to “do something.” Ms. Van Houten stabbed Mrs. La Bianca repeatedly. Ms. Van Houten wiped down surfaces in the house to eliminate fingerprints, changed clothes, and drank chocolate milk from the La Biancas’ refrigerator. The group fled.
Mr. La Bianca was found with a knife protruding from his neck, a carving fork protruding from his stomach, and the word, “War” scratched into his stomach. He died as a result of 13 stab wounds and suffered 14 puncture wounds. Mrs. La Bianca died as a result of approximately 41 stab wounds. The phrases “Death to Pigs,” “Rise,” and references to Helter Skelter were written in the victims’ blood on the walls and the refrigerator. Ms. Van Houten was arrested on November 25, 1969.
The question I must answer is whether Ms. 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 youth 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).)
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 Ms. Van Houten suitable for parole based on her youth at the time of the crime, lack of prior criminality, stable social history before and while incarcerated, and “decades of prosocial work and – positive programming.”
I acknowledge that Ms. Van Houten’s crime was committed when she was 19 years old and that she has since been incarcerated for 48 years. The psychologist who evaluated Ms. Van Houten in 2018 concluded that it was very likely that her involvement in the life offense was significantly impacted by characteristics of youth, including impulsivity, the inability to adequately foresee the long-term consequences of her behavior, and the inability to manage her emotions that resulted from trauma.
I also acknowledge that Ms. Van Houten is now 69 years old and has made commendable efforts to improve herself in prison, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree and completing extensive self-help programming. Ms. Van Houten has served on the Inmate Advisory Council and as a facilitator for Victim Offender Education.
In making this decision, I carefully examined the record for evidence demonstrating Ms. Van Houten’s increased maturity and rehabilitation, and gave great weight to all the factors relevant to her diminished culpability as a youthful offender—her immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences—and her other hallmark features of youth. I have also given great weight to her subsequent growth in prison during my consideration of her suitability for parole. However, these factors are outweighed by negative factors that demonstrate she remains unsuitable for parole at this time.
Ms. Van Houten and the Manson Family committed some of the most notorious and brutal killings in California’s history. The gruesome crimes perpetrated by Ms. Van Houten and other Manson Family members in an attempt to incite social chaos continue to inspire fear to this day. As acknowledged by the Board in Ms. Van Houten’s parole hearing, the crimes were “heinous, cruel, and inexplicably disturbing and dispassionate.” Almost 50 years later, the magnitude of these crimes and their impact on society endure.
While I commend Ms. Van Houten for her efforts at rehabilitation and acknowledge her youth at the time of the crimes, I am concerned by her role in these killings and her potential for future violence. Ms. Van Houten was an eager participant in the killing of the La Biancas and played a significant role. She pinned Mrs. La Bianca down so that Ms. Krenwinkel could stab her. When Ms. Krenwinkel’s knife bent, Ms. Van Houten summoned Mr. Watson, who viscously stabbed Mrs. La Bianca multiple times, then handed a knife to Ms. Van Houten. Ms. Van Houten then stabbed Mrs. La Bianca at least 16 additional times. Afterwards, Ms. Van Houten wiped the house of the group’s fingerprints. When asked at her parole hearing about removing the fingerprints, Ms. Van Houten said that she focused on the task because she felt like a failure for not mutilating the bodies per Mr. Manson’s instructions. In discussing Ms. Van Houten’s role in the crime, the Board noted that she was not simply a passive follower but a “leader in there too, with your behavior and your actions.”
It is difficult to understand how someone could commit these extreme crimes, and Ms. Van Houten’s explanation for her willingness to perpetrate such violence is insufficient.
She told the evaluating psychologist in 2018 that she believed she had been “chosen” by Mr. Manson and that she committed the crimes because she “had to kill them for the beginning of the revolution.” She stated that at the time of the murders she was “desperate to be accepted” and that her “value came in the eyes of other people.” Ms. Van Houten’s need for acceptance does not explain her primary role in the brutal slaying of Mrs. La Bianca, and her failure to adequately explain her willing participation indicates that Ms. Van Houten is still minimizing her responsibility.
I am also concerned that Ms. Van Houten continues to lack insight into the causative factors of her crime. When questioned by the Board regarding what she would do differently, Ms. Van Houten responded, “So if I could redo it all over, I would be a much better daughter to my mom when my dad left. . . . I guess if I could redo it, I would want to be a supportive daughter.” Before this crime occurred, Ms. Van Houten had suffered serious trauma and lived in a dysfunctional family environment. Instead of recognizing and fully grappling with these external factors and her response to them, Ms. Van Houten’s answer demonstrates that she still cannot adequately explain her destructive reaction to difficult external factors beyond her control.
Furthermore, I am troubled by Ms. Van Houten’s answer when asked by the Board if Mr. Manson had ever forced himself on her sexually. She replied, “No. But my first meeting with him, I’m—he gave us some kind of a drug… And he sodomized me, you know when I was half in and half out, but I was there willingly.” Ms. Van Houten’s characterization of this as a consensual encounter – rather than an assault by an older man who drugged her and held a position of power within her cult – is troubling. She still minimizes Mr. Manson’s violent and controlling actions. This indicates that she has not fully examined her ongoing susceptibility to negative influences and manipulation. Without a deeper understanding of what led her to submit to Mr. Manson and participate in these horrific murders, I cannot be sure that Ms. Van Houten is capable of acting differently in the future.
The evaluating psychologist in 2018 found that Ms. Van Houten displayed predictive factors for future dangerous behavior, including prior violence, violent attitude, other antisocial behavior, troubled relationships, substance abuse problems, and traumatic experiences. The psychologist also noted that Ms. Van Houten has a “history of engaging in impulsive behavior, including drug use and promiscuity, and her involvement in the life crime reflected a callous lack of empathy for the victims.” Given the horrendous nature of these murders and Ms. Van Houten’s current, related lack of insight, Ms. Van Houten must take additional steps that demonstrate she will never return to this type of submission or violence again.
I have considered the evidence in the record that is relevant to whether Ms. Van Houten is currently dangerous. When considered as a whole, I find the evidence shows that she currently poses an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison at this time. Therefore, I reverse the decision to parole Ms. Van Houten.
June 3, 2019
Governor, State of California