Documented below are the complete details written by the governor regarding his decision.
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. According to former Family member Barbara Hoyt, “preparing for Helter Skelter physically, mentally, financially was the all- pervasive fabric of Manson Family daily life.” They went “creepy crawling” at night, committing auto thefts and residential burglaries, in preparation for Helter Skelter and the Family’s relocation to the desert. 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 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.) 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. (Id. at pp. 1211, 1214.)
The Board of Parole Hearings found Van Houten suitable for parole based on her age at the time of the crime, length of incarceration, lack of violent crime as an adult, educational and vocational accomplishments, self-help programming, lack of disciplinary history, credibility, detailed relapse prevention plan, “tremendous” level of insight, acceptance of responsibility, remorse, consistent risk assessments placing her at a minimal risk of violence, and parole plans.
Van Houten was only 19 years old when she perpetrated these heinous murders. Accordingly, I must give great weight to her “diminished culpability… as compared to adults,” “hallmark features of youth,” and “subsequent growth and increased maturity.” (Pen. Code, § 4801, subd. (c).) The record reveals that prior to joining the Manson Family, Van Houten led a “privileged” life. She reported being raised “comfortably” in the middle class by her father, an automobile auctioneer, and her mother, a homemaker. She sang in the choir at her Presbyterian church, went to the youth fellowship, and enjoyed church camp every summer. In high school, several classmates described Van Houten as “popular.” She was homecoming princess twice, class secretary, and a participant in Campfire Girls and Job’s Daughters. She was tested and found to have “a superior I.Q. in the top five percent of the United States.” She also began to experience some instability in her life following her parents’ divorce when she was 14. She reported that her parents’ relationship was “mismatched” and her mother “married down” and was “embarrassed” by her father’s drinking. Following the divorce, Van Houten indicated that she felt abandoned by her father and angry with her mother. She rebelled by using drugs and had a self-induced abortion sometime during the second trimester of her pregnancy at age 17. However, even after this, she was able to graduate from high school. She attended a business college for a year and became a certified legal secretary. Shortly after receiving her certification, Van Houten went to San Francisco where she met fellow Family members, Bobby Beausoleil and Catherine Share. She traveled throughout the state with them before ultimately moving to Spahn Ranch. She lived on the Ranch for nearly a year before the Tate-LaBianca murders.
Van Houten has now been incarcerated for 46 years. She is 66 years old and has made efforts to improve herself The psychologist who evaluated her in 2016 noted that during Van Houten’s imprisonment, she has “developed greater maturity, independence, and responsibility” and has “led a pro-social lifestyle.” 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 She has participated in numerous self-help programs including Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, Victim Offender Education Group, and Emotions Anonymous. I carefully examined the record for evidence of her diminished culpability and youthful characteristics at the time of the crime, and her subsequent growth in prison. I gave these considerations great weight when assessing her suitability for parole. However, they are outweighed by negative factors that demonstrate she remains unsuitable for parole.
These exceptionally gruesome murders committed by Van Houten and the Manson Family remain some of the most notorious crimes in American history. As the sentencing judge stated, “[T]his case is a special one. It will burn in the public consciousness for a long period of time.” The crimes abruptly put an end to an era defined by the “Summer of Love” and the hippie movement, replacing ideas of peace and love with widespread fear and panic throughout California that reverberated long after the murders. The shocking nature of the crimes left an indelible mark on society. The motive to trigger a civilization-ending race war by slaughtering innocent people chosen at random is equally disturbing. While the murders at the Tate and LaBianca residences are the most well-known murders committed by the Manson Family, members of the Family are also responsible for other murders including Gary Hinman and Donald “Shorty” Shea. There is no indication that Van Houten was part of these murders; however, she played a central role in the LaBianca murders. 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 to affect their lives to this day. As our Supreme Court has acknowledged, in rare circumstances, a crime is so atrocious that it provides evidence of current dangerousness by itself
But the murders alone are not the only evidence that Van Houten remains unsuitable for parole. Van Houten’s explanations for why she joined the Manson Family and her willingness to engage in violence do not account for the gravity of her crimes. When asked by the psychologist in 2016 about her choice to join the Family and participate in its activities, Van Houten cited her lack of “real consequences” for her misbehavior growing up, feelings of abandonment by her father, anger towards her mother, the trauma of her abortion, her modest coping skills, and her substance abuse. She stated these made her vulnerable to manipulation by the “charismatic and pernicious personality” of Manson. She told the psychologist that when the Family’s focus shifted from drugs to violence, she expressed a desire to leave, but was “unable to” because Manson had taken a dominant role in her life and she felt powerless. She reported that she ultimately “surrendered to him.” At her 2016 hearing, Van Houten supplemented those explanations. She spoke about how life at the Ranch “had become a capsule, like we were isolated” and she did not “see a way out.” She explained that Manson’s established control combined with her drug use prevented her from questioning him. She said, “I wanted to surrender my life to someone. And I believed that he was an extraordinary person. And I didn’t believe I had or I didn’t see that I had alternatives.” With respect to her involvement in the LaBianca murders she told the psychologist, “I really wanted out and there was no way out.” She further told the Board she stabbed Mrs. LaBianca, “Because Tex told me to and I knew I needed to do something.” She stated that while Watson was stabbing Mrs. LaBianca she was “just staring” into the den and she “wasn’t really conscious.” She explained that she was in a state of disarray after the murders and “was pretty much following Tex’s lead” and “making sure that I did what he wanted me to do.”
Van Houten’s statements give the false impression that she was a victim who was forced into participating in the Family without any way out. As former Family member Barbara Hoyt explained at Van Houten’s 2013 hearing, the acceptance of new members into the Family “was a two-way street.” She observed that people “came and went at will” and said that she herself left twice. However, Van Houten never left. Van Houten admitted during cross-examination at trial that she liked being a member of the Family from the time she joined. She lived on the Ranch for nearly a year prior to the murders and participated in the “creepy crawling” outings. She fully subscribed to Manson’s ideas and supported the use of violence to further the Family’s goals. Even after her arrest and physical separation from Manson, she continued to endorse his beliefs by acting out in the courtroom, shaving her head, and placing an “X” on her forehead during trial to symbolize that she had “removed [herself] from society.”
Van Houten also characterizes herself as less culpable for her actions because she was merely following orders from others during the LaBianca murders. But she was far from a passive or unwilling participant. In a 2007 letter, Ms. Hoyt described, “There were several people who lived with the Manson family who despite believing that Charlie was Jesus Christ, that despite fearing the coming of the end of the world in Helter Skelter, despite the cult techniques of indoctrination chose not to harm others even if it meant not surviving Helter Skelter. There was also a group of family members who couldn’t wait to kill. Leslie was in the latter group.” Van Houten has admitted that she had thought about the possibility of killing someone for “quite a while” and had determined, after weighing the consequences, that she “could” kill another human being. She watched and listened carefully to demonstrations given by Manson about how to kill people. The morning after the Tate killings, she saw news coverage about the murders and talked to the perpetrators. She knew exactly what had happened and still begged to be a part of the murders that night. She entered the LaBianca’s home, “cognizant of her surroundings,” and made the choice to stab Mrs. LaBianca over and over. Then she covered up the crime scene by wiping away fingerprints, drank chocolate milk from the refrigerator, and changed into Mrs. LaBianca’s clothes before leaving. Back at the Ranch, Van Houten bragged about the murders by telling another member that stabbing was “fun.” These are not the actions of someone who was in a state of disarray and “wasn’t really conscious.” They are actions of someone who had trained to kill, weighed the consequences of her actions, and executed them. Even two years after the murders, when interviewed by a psychologist, Van Houten admitted that, although she had no present desire to kill anyone, she would have no difficulty doing it again.
It remains unclear how and why Van Houten drastically transformed from an exceptionally smart, driven young woman, class secretary and homecoming princess, to a member of one of the most notorious cults in history and an eager participant in the cold-blooded and gory murder of innocent victims aiming to provoke an all-out race war. Both her role in these extraordinarily brutal crimes and her inability to explain her willing participation in such horrific violence cannot be overlooked and lead me to believe she remains an unreasonable risk to society if released.
I have considered the evidence in the record that is relevant to whether 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. Therefore, I reverse the decision to parole Van Houten.
Decision Date: July 22, 2016
EDMUND G. BROWN JR.
Governor, State of California
CASE UPDATES AND INFO
-Trial of the Century
-Susan Atkins-Patricia Krenwinkel
-Parole Transcripts 1985-2017
Franklin Hearing transcript 2017
-Tex Watson Tapes
-Criteria Parole Suitability
-Rich Pfeiffer's letter to the DA
-Parole Reversed 2016