For more than 50 years, relatives of Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca have been vehemently pleading with California governors and the state’s probation committee: never release a member of Charles Manson’s so-called family.
“If you have a monster and you’re lucky enough to have caught it, and it was sentenced to die, why let it go?” said Tate’s sister, Debra Tate. “I’ve worked with Republican governors and Democratic governors, and everyone has always said, ‘We’re never going to release them.'”
That changed Tuesday, when Leslie Van Houten, after being repeatedly denied parole, was released from prison for her role in the infamous 1969 Los Angeles murders.
While Tate and other family members of the victims disapproved of the release, the move underscores how attitudes toward punishment and rehabilitation have changed in the criminal justice system, even when it comes to gruesome cases like the Manson murders.
“The crimes were really gruesome, brutal murders of strangers,” said Hadar Aviram, a professor at UC Law San Francisco and the author of “Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole,” a book that studies parole hearings . of the convicts. “There’s an idea of, Can this ever be forgiven?”
But, Aviram continued, “I think if you really think of this as a pragmatic public safety issue, these people are not a public safety risk.”
Read more: Many assumed that Manson killers would never be released. How Leslie Van Houten did it
Those familiar with Van Houten’s case point out that the 73-year-old has been regarded as a “model prisoner” over the years.
“There was no evidence on file that, after more than 50 years, she continued to pose a threat,” said Heidi Rummel, director of the Post-Conviction Justice Project at USC.
Rummel, who has represented parole candidates for more than 15 years, said clients have cited Van Houten for their focus on rehabilitation during their time behind bars.
Gov. Gavin Newsom had denied Van Houten’s parole three times, but he was overruled this year by a California appeals court and announced Friday that he would not challenge her release.
Prisoners’ rights advocates argue that even previously violent offenders who have served long sentences have a low risk of recidivism compared to their younger counterparts, saying they should receive particular attention because of their age and often fragile health.
Aviram argues that releasing convicts who have undergone rehabilitation – especially those approaching age 70 or 80 – poses little risk to society.
According to reports from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state has granted parole to about 15% of inmates who have appeared for hearings since 2018. About 34% were refused outright.
Prior to 2008, the state’s probation board approved less than 5% of cases reviewed.
The power to overturn the probation committee’s decisions is being used extensively by state governors, said David Zarmi, a licensed career attorney.
“There were very few parolees that the governor’s office did not challenge on appeal, even on shaky grounds,” he said.
He said that in Van Houten’s case, the governor probably did not petition the California Supreme Court because doing so would risk the court issuing a binding, mandatory opinion.
“The hope is that some of the
other appeals boards in the 2nd District, as well as other districts across the state, will be more sympathetic to the governor’s original position in future cases than the California Supreme Court, which has generally more recently adopted a more progressive stance,” he said.
Read more: Charles Manson’s murderous imprint on LA continues as other killers have come and gone
However, critics of Van Houten’s release argue that the risk to the public should not be the only factor to be considered.
Van Houten and another woman were holding Rosemary LaBianca when Charles “Tex” Watson stabbed her husband. He handed Van Houten a knife after he finished, and she testified at trial that she had stabbed the woman at least 14 times.
“And I took one of the knives, and Patricia had one — a knife — and we started stabbing and cutting up the lady,” Van Houten testified in 1971. (Patricia Krenwinkel, another follower of Manson, was a co-defendant.)
The day before the LaBianca murders, Manson supporters — including Watson and Krenwinkel — had killed Sharon Tate along with Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent in a brutal attack on a home on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon.
Relatives of the victims called Van Houten’s release this week “sickening” and “heartbreaking”, saying they feared it could open the door for the release of other elderly Manson family members.
Read more: Full Coverage: The Manson Murders – 50 Years Later
“They’re all psychopaths who manipulated the systems,” said Kay Hinman Martley, whose cousin Gary Hinman was also brutally murdered by Manson supporters in July 1969.
Van Houten and others were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but those sentences were commuted to life in prison due to the California Supreme Court’s 1972 decision to overturn the death penalty.
For decades, the state parole board continued to deny release to followers of Manson, who died in prison in 2017. That changed in 2008, when the state Supreme Court ruled that parole could not be denied based solely on the original offense.
However, that change didn’t immediately open the doors for any of Manson’s followers. Records show that California governors have repeatedly reversed probation board decisions when they recommended the release of Manson’s followers.
“We’ve got four other Manson killers there and I’m afraid they’ll all escape,” Hinman Martley said. “All these killers get all the help they want, but nobody does anything for the victims.”
Read more: How Charles Manson cast his spell on homecoming queens, honorary degrees and dropouts
Of the Manson family members convicted of various crimes in the 1960s, four remain in California state prisons.
Krenwinkel, 75, has been paroled ten times. In May 2022, the board recommended that she be paroled, but Newsom reversed the decision.
Robert Kenneth Beausoleil, 75, has been paroled 16 times. He was approved for parole in 2019, but that decision was also overturned by the governor. Beausoleil was paroled in two consecutive hearings.
Bruce Davis, 80, has been paroled 24 times during his long stint in prison. The board has paroled him seven times since 2010 — most recently in January 2021. All decisions were reversed by the governor at the time.
Charles Denton “Tex” Watson, 77, has been paroled 13 times. The board never approved his release. His next hearing is scheduled for October 2026.
Those decisions, experts say, are both judicial and political.
In Van Houten’s case, the governor strongly opposed her release, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School. But he realized that his efforts to further appeal her parole would probably be unsuccessful.
“Politically, this is not something the governor wanted to do,” Levenson said. “But she managed to get out because she managed to become a different person in prison.”
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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.