GOVERNOR NEWSOM’S RULING ON LESLIE VAN HOUTEN’S 2021 PAROLE RECOMMENDATION
Mar. 29 – In 1968, Leslie Van Houten met Charles Manson and began living as a member of Mr. Manson’s cult, which they called “The Family.” The cult believed that an apocalyptic race war, which they referred to as “Helter Skelter,” was imminent. The cult members planned to hide in the desert until the race war ended, at which point they planned to seize control of the world. In 1969, however, Mr. Manson decided it was the cult’s responsibility to initiate Helter Skelter by killing white victims, thereby inciting retaliatory violence against Black people.
Ms. Van Houten’s crime was one in a string of brutal attacks that the Family perpetrated in Los Angeles, starting on August 8, 1969. Members of the Family brutally murdered actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant, and her friends Steve Parent, Abigail Folger, Wojiciech Fryowski, and Jay Sebring.
Two days later, on August 10, 1969, Ms. Van Houten, along with Family members Charles “Tex” Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Linda Kasabian, Mr. Manson, and Steve Grogan, drove to the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Mr. Manson and Mr. Watson entered the house, woke up Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca, tied them up and returned to the group outside. Mr. Manson instructed Ms. Van Houten and Ms. Krenwinkel to enter the house and follow Mr. Watson’s instructions, then he drove away with Mr. Grogan and Ms. Kasabian.
Ms. Van Houten, Ms. Krenwinkel, and Mr. Watson entered the La Biancas’ home. Mr. Watson, armed with a bayonet, ordered the LaBiancas to give them cash. Mrs. La Bianca gave him a small box of money. Mr. Watson then told Ms. Van Houten and Ms. Krenwinkel to take Mrs. LaBianca into a bedroom and kill her. Ms. Van Houten and Ms. Krenwinkel then transferred Mrs. LaBianca to a bedroom, and Ms. Krenwinkel retrieved two knives from the kitchen. Ms. Van Houten put a pillowcase over Mrs. LaBianca’s head and wrapped a lamp cord around her neck. Meanwhile in the living room, Mr. Watson covered Mr. LaBianca’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. LaBianca multiple times.
After hearing her husband’s screams, Mrs. LaBianca grabbed a lamp and swung it at Ms. Van Houten. Ms. Van Houten knocked the lamp from Mrs. LaBianca’s hands, wrestled her back onto the bed, and pinned her down. Ms. Krenwinkel stabbed Mrs. LaBianca in the neck and struck her collar bone, which bent the knife’s blade. Ms. Van Houten called for Mr. Watson, who came into the room and stabbed Mrs. LaBianca numerous times. Mr. Watson handed Ms. Van Houten a knife and instructed her to “do something.” Ms. Van Houten stabbed Mrs. LaBianca approximately 16 times. Ms. Van Houten then wiped down surfaces in the house to eliminate fingerprints, changed into Mrs. LaBianca’s clothes, and drank chocolate milk from the LaBiancas’refrigerator. The group then fled.
The next morning, Mrs. LaBianca’s teenaged son discovered Mr. LaBianca’s body with a knife stuck in his neck, a carving fork protruding from his stomach, and the word “war” carved into his skin. 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. In 1971, Ms. Van Houten was convicted of two counts of first degree murder and one count of conspiracy and sentenced to death. In 1972, following a change in California law, Ms. Van Houten’s sentence was modified to life in prison with the possibility of parole. In 1976, Ms. Van Houten’s conviction was overturned on appeal because of legal errors in her trial, which resulted in a retrial. The retrial ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked. In 1978, Ms. Van Houten was tried a third time and convicted of two counts of first degree murder and one count of conspiracy. She was sentenced to a term of seven years to life.
The Board of Parole Hearings (Board) has conducted 21 parole hearings for Ms. Van Houten since 1982. Since 2016, the Board has found her suitable for parole five times. Governor Brown reversed parole grants in 2016 and 2018. Governor Newsom reversed parole grants in 2019 and 2020. This decision follows her November 9, 2021 parole grant.
The California Constitution grants me the authority to review proposed decisions of the Board. (Cal. Const. art. V, § 8, subd. (b).) I am given broad discretion to determine an inmate’s suitability for parole and may affirm, reverse, modify, or refer back to the Board any grant of parole to a person convicted of murder serving an indeterminate life sentence. (Id.; Pen. Code, § 3041.2; see In re Rosenkrantz (2002) 29 Cal.4th 616, 625-26; In re Dannenberg (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1061, 1080, 1082, 1088.) I am authorized to identify and weigh all “factors relevant to predicting ‘whether the inmate will be able to live in society without committing additional antisocial acts.'” (In re Lawrence (2008) 44 Cal.4th 1181, 1205-06, quoting In re Rosenkrantz, supra, 29 Cal.4th at p. 655.)
When the Board proposes that an inmate convicted of murder be released on parole, I am authorized to conduct an independent, de novo review of the entire record, including “the facts of the offense, the inmate’s progress during incarceration, and the insight he or she has achieved into past behavior,” to determine the inmate’s suitability for parole. (In re Shaputis II (2011) 53 Cal.4th 192, 221.)
My review is independent of the Board’s authority, but it is guided by the same “essential” question: whether the inmate currently poses a risk to public safety. (Cal. Const. art. V, § 8, subd. (b); Pen. Code, § 3041.2; In re Shaputis II, supra, 53 Cal.4th at pp. 220-21.)
The circumstances of the crime can provide evidence of current dangerousness when evidence in the inmate’s pre- or post-incarceration history, or the inmate’s current mental state, indicate that the crime remains probative of current dangerousness. (In re Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1214.) In rare cases, 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 exists. (In re Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1214.)
I am also 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).) I further must afford special consideration to whether age, the amount of time served, and diminished physical condition reduce the inmate’s risk of future violence. (See Feb. 10, 2014 order issued in Coleman v. Brown, Case No. 2:90-cv-0520 LKK-DAD (PC) (E.D. Cal.) and Plata v. Brown, Case No. C01-01351 TEH (N.D. Cal.).)
The Manson Family murders are among the most notorious and gruesome in American history. Beyond the immeasurable suffering Ms. Van Houten caused the LaBianca family, Ms. Van Houten’s grisly acts have haunted people in California and beyond for more than half a century.
Ms. Van Houten herself described the impact of the crime in a letter to the Board in 2016. She wrote that her crime, designed to incite social unrest, “did not begin a revolution. What it did was create fear and panic across Los Angeles and the entire country for months to come. Parents kept their children home from school, doors and windows were kept locked in spite of the summer’s heat, and the love and peace movement ended. The murders occurred in the privacy of a total stranger’s home, which meant it could have happened to anyone. This heightened awareness of everyone’s personal vulnerability and caused traumatic reactions to many.”
While Ms. Van Houten’s understanding of the gravity of her crime and its ongoing harm is an encouraging sign of her developing insight, I have concluded that she remains unsuitable for parole because she poses a current threat to public safety. Ms. Van Houten continues to lack sufficient insight into the risk factors that led to her violent conduct in the past and the skills to protect against her becoming susceptible to similar pressures in the future.
In November 2020, I reversed Ms. Van Houten’s July 2020 parole grant based in part on her significant gaps in insight. I concluded that Ms. Van Houten needed to develop a deeper understanding of the factors that caused her to seek acceptance from a violent cult and to commit brutal acts of violence on its behalf. Following this parole reversal, Ms. Van Houten committed herself to improving her insight, and she made the decision to step away from her post as the chairperson of the Inmate Advisory Council in order to focus on her self-development. Ms. Van Houten entered Integrated Substance Use Disorder Treatment (ISUDT). Ms. Van Houten told the Board in 2021, “a lot of the ISUDT program has been focusing on what for me was my early years of… the drug use and who I was, revisiting it. And…I have been getting to the point where I can—not just remember who I was, but also feel who I was at those ages.” While I commend Ms. Van Houten for taking this step forward in her rehabilitation, I find that her insight is still lacking.
Ms. Van Houten requires additional work to internalize her programming in ISUDT, given the nexus between her substance abuse history, her past feelings of stress within relationships, and her history of violence. For example, the evaluating psychologist in 2021 concluded that, “Substance abuse and problematic relationships contributed significantly to Ms. Van Houten’s commission of the life crime.” The psychologist also diagnosed Ms. Van Houten with Cannabis, Amphetamine, and Other Hallucinogen Use Disorders, in sustained remission in a controlled environment. The psychologist also noted that, “Ms. Van Houten will face significant stress if granted parole supervision,” especially due to her “notoriety,” and that her response to these stressors remain relevant to her risk for future violence. Ms. Van Houten has historically responded to stress in interpersonal relationships and feelings of isolation by using drugs, which ultimately led her to commit extreme acts of violence. Before she can be found suitable for parole, Ms. Van Houten must demonstrate that she has sufficient coping skills to prevent substance abuse relapse in the community.
Ms. Van Houten must also better understand the internal processes that led her to commit the crimes and hone the skills to control them. While Ms. Van Houten has demonstrated some insight into the crime and shown remorse, I note that since 2020, Ms. Van Houten’s explanation of her path to violent conduct focuses on external factors. She connects her initial decision to join the Manson family cult with the adverse experiences of her parents’ divorce and being coerced by her mother to have an abortion. While these events may have left Ms. Van Houten vulnerable to cult recruitment when she was young, she continues to lack insight into the internal processes that led her to respond to her own trauma with brutality against Ms. La Bianca.
At her 2021 hearing, the Board asked her why she remained in the cult even after their extremely violent conduct escalated, Ms. Van Houten explained that at the time she believed Mr. Manson “was a reincarnation” of Jesus Christ and she imagined herself as a kind of disciple. This explanation also focuses on the acts of Mr. Manson rather than her own internal processes that led her to adopt this dangerous system of beliefs, and violently act on them. Ms. Van Houten, because of her self-imposed notoriety, will almost certainly experience complex, external triggers if she is released on parole. She has not demonstrated that she has the self-awareness and coping strategies to respond to externalities in a prosocial way before she can be safely released.
Finally, I am required to consider the additional factors that are legally relevant to Ms. Van Houten’s suitability for parole. As explained below, I have weighed these factors and conclude they do not outweigh the substantial evidence of her current dangerousness.
First, in the cases of inmates who commit their crimes when they are under 26 years old, as in Ms. Van Houten’s case, I am required to review the record for evidence of factors relevant to their diminished culpability as youthful offenders and any subsequent growth and increased maturity. Ms. Van Houten was 19 years old when she committed the life crime. I have carefully examined the record for evidence of youthful offender factors and find that, at the time of her crime, she exhibited some of the hallmark features of youth. I note that the psychologist who evaluated Ms. Van Houten in 2021 wrote, “At the time of the life crime, Ms. Van Houten displayed hallmarks of youth such as naiveté, excessive risk-taking, attenuated ability to anticipate and appreciate consequences, and reduced ability to manage negative emotions.”
I have also examined the record for evidence of Ms. Van Houten’s subsequent growth in prison and increased maturity and rehabilitation. I acknowledge that Ms. Van Houten has made significant efforts to improve herself in prison through self-help programming and other prosocial efforts. She has participated in and facilitated self-help programming, including anger management, violence prevention, and substance abuse prevention courses. She has earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and completed vocational training. Ms. Van Houten has consistently engaged in individual and group therapy while in prison. She also has a laudable disciplinary record. I have given great weight to her subsequent growth in prison during my consideration of his suitability for parole. While Ms. Van Houten has certainly matured in many ways over the last 51 years, her current gaps in insight demonstrate that she has not internalized her rehabilitation programming sufficiently to reduce her risk for future dangerousness. Consequently, even after according these youthful offender factors great weight, I conclude they are outweighed by negative factors that demonstrate that she remains unsuitable for parole at this time.
Second, I have given special consideration to the Elderly Parole factors in this case. Ms. Van Hoten is 72 years old and has served 51 years and 10 months. After nearly 52 years in prison, she still has not adequately addressed why she joined and remained in a violent cult or the triggering factors that led her to murder Mrs. La Bianca. Ms. Van Houten’s physical strength has lessened over the years, she was diagnosed with several chronic medical conditions that the evaluating psychologist concluded, “somewhat decrease[s] her risk of violence.” I have concluded that Ms. Van Houten’s age and diminished physical strength do not sufficiently mitigate her current risk to public safety.
Because of Ms. Van Houten’s history of obedience to a cult, the most relevant risk factor in this case remains her negative response to adverse external factors, and her susceptibility to them. Specifically, Ms. Van Houten has not sufficiently mitigated her risks for substance use relapse and distorted thinking leading to antisocial conduct in response to stressors. Accordingly, her release is not consistent with public safety.
I commend Ms. Van Houten for her significant efforts in rehabilitation to-date and acknowledge that her statements of remorse for her crime appear sincere and deeply felt. I encourage her to continue on this positive path.
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.
March 29, 2022
Governor, State of California