GOVERNOR NEWSOM’S RULING ON LESLIE VAN HOUTEN’S PAROLE RECOMMENDATION
Nov. 27 – 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.
I acknowledge that Ms. Van Houten committed this crime when she was 19 years old and that he has since been incarcerated for 50 years. 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 impulsivity, inability to adequately foresee the long-term consequences of her behavior, and the inability to manage her emotions—and her other hallmark features of youth. The psychologist who evaluated Ms. Van Houten in 2018 concluded that “it seems very likely that Ms. Van Houten’s involvement in the life offense was significantly impacted by” these youth factors.
I also acknowledge that Ms. Van Houten has made efforts to improve herself in prison. She has participated in and facilitated self-help programming, including Narcotics Anonymous, Victim Offender Education Group, and the Actors’ Gang Prison Project. She has earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree and completed vocational training. Additionally, Ms. Van Houten has served on the Inmate Advisory Council and has an exemplary disciplinary record. I have 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’s explanation of what allowed her to be vulnerable to Mr. Manson’s influence remains unsatisfying. At her parole hearing, Ms. Van Houten explained that she was turning her back on her parents following their divorce and after a forced abortion. She described herself at the time of her involvement in the Manson Family as a “very weak person that took advantage of someone that wanted to take control of my life and I handed it over.” I am unconvinced that these factors adequately explain her eagerness to submit to a dangerous cult leader or her desire to please Mr. Manson, including engaging in the brutal actions of the life crime.
I remain concerned by Ms. Van Houten’s characterization of her participation in this gruesome double murder, part of a series of crimes that rank among the most infamous and fear-inducing in California history. Ms. Van Houten explained to the evaluating psychologist that she was “desperate to be accepted,” was “chosen” by Mr. Manson, “had to kill them for the beginning of the revolution,” and wanted Mr. Manson to “know I was completely committed to him and his cause.” At her 2020 parole hearing, Ms. Van Houten reiterated that this was her state of mind at the time of the life crime, adding “I felt obligated to participate. I wanted to participate.” Ms. Van Houten recalled that while she was holding Ms. La Bianca down, her crime partner Ms. Krenwinkle, stabbed the victim in the collar bone, which bent the knife. Ms. Van Houten told the psychologist, “I ran to the door of the bedroom, said, ‘We can’t do it. We can’t kill her.’ [Mr. Watson] came into the bedroom, [Ms. Krenwinkle] went into the living room, I stood at the doorway, none of this was conscious, I was running on fear. Tex [Watson] had stabbed her. I assumed she was dead.” Ms. Van Houten continued, “She could have been alive, but I assumed she was dead, Tex said, ‘Do something,’ and handed me a knife. So, I stabbed her in the lower torso 16 times. It was a horrible, predatory feeling.” I note that Ms. Van Houten’s report that committing the offense was “horrible” conflicts with her subsequent conduct. After the murders, Ms. Van Houten reportedly told a young female follower of Mr. Manson that participating in the murders was “fun.” Moreover, she continued to follow Mr. Manson’s instructions and “continued to prepare for the revolution” until she was arrested. The inconsistency indicates gaps in Ms. Van Houten’s insight or candor, or both, which bear on her current risk for dangerousness. The evaluating psychologist noted that several historical factors including “prior violence, violent attitude, other antisocial behavior, troubled relationships, traumatic experiences, and substance abuse problems are
present and relevant to future risk of violent recidivism.” These factors remain salient despite Ms. Van Houten’s advanced age and remain cause for concern should she be released into the community.
Given the extreme nature of the crime in which she was involved, I do not believe she has sufficiently demonstrated that she has come to terms with the totality of the factors that led her to participate in the vicious Manson Family killings. Before she can be safely released, Ms. Van Houten must do more to develop her understanding of the factors that caused her to seek acceptance from such a negative, violent influence, and perpetrate extreme acts of wanton violence.
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.
November 27, 2020
Governor, State of California