Jun. 17 – The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has asked Judge Sam Ohta to deny Leslie Van Houten a hearing in the Superior Court, meanwhile Van Houten’s attorney continues to doggedly pursue disclosure of the Tex Watson tapes.
In January, Van Houten filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to People v. Franklin, contending she is entitled an opportunity to establish a record of mitigating evidence of her characteristics and circumstances at the time of the murders.
On May 4th, Judge Ohta ordered the District Attorney show cause as to why such a hearing shouldn’t be granted. Specifically, Ohta asked the District Attorney if Van Houten had previously had an adequate opportunity to create such a record; and if not, whether she is now entitled to make one now.
In a brief filed on June 1st, Deputy District Attorney Donna Lebowitz conceded that Van Houten did not have an opportunity to make such a record when her case was pending in the Superior Court, but did have ample time to prepare one for her April 14, 2016 parole hearing.
With the passage of a Senate Bill in October 2015, Van Houten became eligible for Youth Offender Parole, in which parole boards are instructed to put great weight on diminished culpability of juveniles and contrast it with any evidence of growth and maturity that has occurred since their commitment offense.
Lebowitz noted that Van Houten had 6 months to create a record to present the board, between the passage of the bill and her April 2016 parole hearing. Further, Lebowitz argued that at that parole hearing, Van Houten did submit onto the record, numerous factors in support of Youth Offender Parole. The factors included testimony about her family background, social history, adolescent development and juvenile criminal history; an interview with a forensic psychologist that discussed her childhood; and letters from people who knew Van Houten before the murders,
“It would be entirely redundant to allow [Van Houten] to duplicate in court, that which she has already presented to those making the ultimate decision on her parole suitability,” wrote Lebowitz.
Van Houten’s attorney, Rich Pfeiffer called Lebowitz’s argument disingenuous considering she was aware that Van Houten’s attorneys had sought the Tex Watson tapes continuously throughout the 18 months prior to the April 2016 hearing.
The Tex Watson tapes are the earliest known documented account of the Tate-LaBianca murders. Recorded before any codefendant account had been made public, the tapes provide an uninfluenced look into the two nights of murder which Watson led. The tapes consist of conversations Charles “Tex” Watson had with this Texas attorney, Bill Boyd. Watson waived his attorney-client privilege in order to have Boyd sell copies of the recordings in 1976 to Chaplin Ray Hoekstra, who was authoring a book on Watson.
In 2008, Boyd discussed having the tapes in an interview with writer Tom O’Neill. The following year, Boyd died suddenly after suffering a heart attack. Within months, his law firm went into bankruptcy.
The District Attorney’s office found out about the tapes in 2011, when O’Neill told Deputy District Attorney Patrick Sequeira that he had been trying to acquire copies from Linda Payne, a bankruptcy trustee who possessed the recordings. O’Neill, through the help of an attorney, tried to convince Payne that privilege no longer existed. Going through two boxes of legal records Boyd had related to Watson’s case, Payne found Watson’s contract with Boyd, as well as the 1976 attorney-client privilege waiver signed by Watson when Boyd to turned over copies to Hoekstra.
Payne contacted Sequeria in March of 2012 and informed him that she would turn over the recordings to Los Angeles authorities. Watson fought the release for nearly a year but ultimately lost due to the contract and waiver. The Los Angeles Police Department took possession of the tapes in the spring of 2013.
Attorneys for Van Houten have sought copies of the tapes for nearly four years, but the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has refused to turn them over. A brief filed by Pfeiffer, chronicled efforts to obtain copies of the tapes dating all the way back to 2014.
In the Fall of 2014, Christie Webb, one of Ms. Van Houten’s attorneys, began calling the Los Angeles Police Department to determine whether they would be willing to participate in informal discovery with regard to audio tape(s) made by Charles “Tex” Watson made in or about 1969. On October 3, 2014, Ms. Webb spoke with someone in LAPD’s media relations who directed her to Greg Toyama, the supervisor of the Risk Management and Discovery Unit. Ms. Webb was then directed to the LAPD Detectives who were handling the audio tapes. Detective Dan Jenks directed Ms. Webb to the District Attorney’s office. Ms. Webb learned that LAPD had done a 40-page report about the content of the tapes.
On October 20, 2014, Ms. Webb spoke with John Morris, Head Deputy District Attorney, Parole Division. Ms. Webb informed Mr. Morris that she believed the tapes contained information about Ms. Van Houten that might be relevant to her parole suitability hearing. On December 10, 2014, Ms. Webb again spoke with Mr. Morris, who stated the “tape is in the possession of the LAPD,” and the police are “not inclined to participate in informal discovery.” Mr. Morris opined the tapes were not discoverable because there is “not any cross over” between the cases, meaning Ms. Van Houten’s case and Mr. Watson’s case. Mr. Morris stated he would check with the LAPD to see if Ms. Van Houten was mentioned in the tapes.
Ms. Webb again spoke with Mr. Morris on January 6, 2015, who agreed with the LAPD detectives that there was “no overlap” between the cases. Mr. Morris stated that Ms. Van Houten is “hardly mentioned at all” on the tapes. Most of the recording was Mr. Watson talking about his “drug upbringing” and “Manson’s control over him.” Therefore, the LAPD would not be participating in informal discovery of the tapes. Mr. Morris was informed that “control” exerted by Manson was a central issue in both cases, and that defense counsel would decide what to do about discovery of the audio tapes.
On March 26, 2015, Ms. Webb served a Deposition Subpoena for Production of Business Records to be served on the LAPD’s Custodian of Records-LAPD Discovery Unit. On March 31, 2015, Ms. Webb received an email in response to the service of the subpoena from Jess Gonzalez, Supervising Assistant City Attorney, Public Safety General Counsel Division, Police Discovery Section, who stated in the email that the District Attorney’s Office has placed a “hold” on the tapes and would not release them. Gonzalez suggested Ms. Webb contact the District Attorney’s Office.
Ms. Webb then wrote to Head Deputy John Morris in the District Attorney’s Office to confirm whether the “hold” on the tape(s) was still in place and if that was the position of both the District Attorney and LAPD. In response, Ms. Webb received a letter dated June 19, 2015, from Head Deputy John Morris. Mr. Morris stated that he had discussed Ms. Webb’s request for the tapes with LAPD Detective Jenks who was the investigating officer on the Manson Family Cases. The letter concluded: “The District Attorney’s Office, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office all agree that we cannot provide the tape(s) you have requested because there are unsolved crimes Manson Family members are suspected of committing. The information contained in the tape(s) are part of the investigation of those crimes and could be used to solve them. Releasing the tape(s) could endanger the investigation those (sic) crimes.”
On September 11, 2015, a petition for writ of mandate was filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. On October 27, 2015, the superior court denied the writ petition. On November 13, 2015, a petition for writ of mandate was filed in the Second Appellate District, Division One. The court of appeal summarily denied the writ petition on November 19, 2015.
On December 2, 2015, a petition for review was filed in the California Supreme Court, case number S230851. On December 3, 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the District Attorney file an answer to the petition for review. The Court requested the District Attorney to:
“Please address the merits of the petition for review. If respondent is of the view that it would assist the court in its consideration and disposition of the petition for review, respondent may lodge, conditionally and confidentially with the court, a copy of any audio tape recordings of interviews with Charles “Tex” Watson in the possession of the Los Angeles Police Department and/or the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, and any report made by the Los Angeles Police Department regarding the contents of the recordings.”
On December 21, 2016, the District Attorney filed the answer and basically argued that their position throughout the entire matter was that “Manson was in complete control of the ‘family’ who committed the murders at his behest.” The District Attorney argued that this position made the tapes cumulative, because it was the same position relied upon by all parties in the underlying trials. Additionally, the “People do not believe it is necessary for the Court to arduously labor through the 326 pages of rambling musings about LSD, secret worlds beneath Death Valley and bizarre racial theories.” On February 3, 2016, the Supreme Court denied review.
Pfeiffer rejected Lebowitz’s argument that a parole consideration hearing would be the appropriate venue to create a record in support of Youth Offender Parole. The District Attorney has previously asserted that there is no post-trial discovery process to assist an inmate to compel discovery at a parole suitability hearing. Without discovery, Van Houten has no way to subpoena the Tex Watson tapes. Pfeiffer noted that the District Attorney’s office has used his efforts against Van Houten. In the April 2016 hearing Lebowitz suggested Pfeiffer’s efforts to get the Tex Watson tapes was an example of Van Houten not taking responsibility for her crimes. When the Board of Parole Hearings recommended Van Houten for parole, District Attorney Jackie Lacey wrote Governor Jerry Brown. Lacey was critical of a letter of support Van Houten received from a psychologist that she was getting therapy from. Lacey argued that Van Houten was attempting to manipulate the parole board by submitting a psychological assessment of insight by a private clinician.
“A Franklin hearing is the only way Ms. Van Houten can compel discovery so the parole board and the Governor will have all of the relevant information to use in making their important decisions in this case,” wrote Pfeiffer. “Due to the past conduct and allegations made by Jackie Lacey, Ms. Van Houten cannot even submit an expert’s report that deals with the science of a youthful offender parole hearing. A Franklin hearing is the only safe way to make such a record.”
Lebowitz also argued Van Houten in not entitled to a hearing pursuant to People V. Franklin because Van Houten’s case is distinguishable from Franklin’s.
In 2011, 16 year-old Tyris Lamar Franklin, shot and killed Gene Deshawn Grisby-Bell, also 16, after Bell had reportedly gotten into an altercation with Franklin’s younger brother. Franklin was subsequently convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive 25 year-to-life terms. The California Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, but ruled that Franklin did not have adequate opportunity to create a record of factors of youth. The case was sent back to the Superior Court where Franklin would be allowed to present mitigating evidence in support of his future youth offender parole hearings.
In opposition to Van Houten’s request for a similar hearing, Lebowitz noted differences between the two cases. Franklin would not be eligible for parole for 25 years, whereas Van Houten had not only been eligible for decades, she has already had several parole hearings. The motivation for the Franklin ruling was that the court felt compiling an accurate record of characteristics and circumstances of a juvenile offender would be best done at the time of the offense.
“[In Van Houten’s case], not only have more than four decades passed, but, memories have faded, and family members have, in fact, passed away,” wrote Lebowitz. “The rationale behind Franklin is completely inapplicable to this case.”
Pfeiffer feels Lebowitz’s argument in opposition of a Franklin hearing, only bolsters Van Houten’s need for the Tex Watson tapes.
“In applying that rational[sic] to this case, the tapes were made at the time of the offense, and were not influenced by any outside source,” argued Pfeiffer. “Memories have faded away and witnesses have relocated and/or passed away. Justice is fortunate to have the tapes to make this record.”