Re­lease Les­lie Van Houten

There’s only one rea­son she’s still in prison af­ter all this time: She was associated with Charles Man­son.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Linda Deutsch Linda Deutsch re­tired as a spe­cial correspondent for the Associated Press af­ter cov­er­ing high-pro­file na­tional tri­als for nearly half a cen­tury. She is work­ing on a me­moir.

As a young jour­nal­ist in 1969, I was as­signed to cover the highly sen­sa­tional trial of the so-called Man­son fam­ily. They were ac­cused of the grue­some mur­ders of, among oth­ers, Leno and Rose­mary LaBianca. Al­most 50 years af­ter the killings here in Los An­ge­les, former Charles Man­son fol­lower Les­lie Van Houten is again el­i­gi­ble for pa­role, and a state panel re­cently rec­om­mended her re­lease. But the ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion rests with Gov. Jerry Brown, who in 2016 said Van Houten posed “an un­rea­son­able risk to so­ci­ety.”

That wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. I be­lieve that Van Houten, who was just 19 at the time of the killings and is now 68, has earned her free­dom.

Never as a work­ing jour­nal­ist did I ex­press my opin­ion on the tri­als I cov­ered. Now, how­ever, I feel com­pelled to speak out — not re­gard­ing Van Houten’s cul­pa­bil­ity, which not even she de­nies, but on the fair­ness of keep­ing her be­hind bars this long. I be­lieve she is be­ing pun­ished be­cause she was associated with Man­son, who at 82 re­mains in prison and whose toxic name clings like poi­son to those who fol­lowed him. Judged in­de­pen­dently, she likely would have been re­leased years ago.

Though many link her to the slay­ings of preg­nant ac­tress Sharon Tate and four oth­ers, Van Houten was not present on the night of those killings. There also was a ques­tion of whether Van Houten, prod­ded by oth­ers to join the may­hem, stabbed Rose­mary LaBianca 14 times be­fore or af­ter she was dead. (Legally, it doesn’t mat­ter; clearly she’s guilty of mur­der.)

Dur­ing her in­car­cer­a­tion, Van Houten has demon­strated re­morse and, in my first-hand as­sess­ment, she is liv­ing proof that re­demp­tion is pos­si­ble even for those whose crimes are un­for­giv­able.

Shortly af­ter my 2015 re­tire­ment, Van Houten wrote to me to thank me for my fair coverage of her many pro­ceed­ings, and I asked whether I could visit her at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tu­tion for Women in Corona. I ad­mit I was cu­ri­ous. I’d sat across from this woman in court­rooms and pa­role rooms for nearly half a cen­tury — three tri­als and 19 pa­role hear­ings — but we’d never spo­ken.

I’ve now vis­ited Van Houten four times. We sit out­side at pic­nic ta­bles with other in­mates, and our con­ver­sa­tions typ­i­cally last three to four hours. And, yes, we talk about the crimes and the Man­son fam­ily, though in short­hand since we both know the details by heart. I take notes.

Man­son, Van Houten and two other fe­male fol­low­ers, Su­san Atkins and Patricia Kren­winkel, were con­victed to­gether and sen­tenced to death. Those sen­tences were com­muted to life when the death penalty was tem­po­rar­ily out­lawed in Cal­i­for­nia in 1972. Atkins died of can­cer in 2009.

In a strange twist, Van Houten’s con­vic­tion was over­turned be­cause her lawyer dis­ap­peared to­ward the trial’s end and later was found dead. Her sec­ond trial lasted nine months, and the jury dead­locked. In a third trial, she was con­victed of the LaBianca mur­ders and sen­tenced to life in prison with el­i­gi­bil­ity for pa­role af­ter seven years. That was in 1978.

Over the course of my vis­its with Van Houten, I’ve learned that she has spent decades in ther­apy to un­der­stand how she fell un­der Man­son’s con­trol. She was an un­likely killer, a Mon­rovia High School home­com­ing princess from a good fam­ily who lost her way and joined Man­son’s cult. She once told me: “I could not have lived with­out pay­ing for what I did.”

But she has paid. At is­sue is whether a per­son who earns her re­lease through hard work over many years should be treated dif­fer­ently be­cause her case was in the head­lines.

The woman I’ve got­ten to know in re­cent months seems noth­ing like the girl once con­trolled by Man­son’s brain­wash­ing and hal­lu­ci­na­tory drugs. She told me that she had long ago de­cided that she could be­come ei­ther a sour old woman or some­one use­ful, even in prison. She chose the lat­ter, ob­tain­ing a bach­e­lor’s de­gree and a mas­ter’s with a schol­arly the­sis on women in prison.

I saw in my vis­its that she is re­spected not only by her fel­low in­mates but also by prison staff. She coun­sels other in­mates and par­tic­i­pates in nu­mer­ous self-help groups. She has worked on the statewide Restora­tive Jus­tice Pro­gram for prisons.

Man­son trial co-prose­cu­tor Stephen Kay once said that he be­lieved Van Houten would be the first Man­son fam­ily mem­ber re­leased “when she is an old lady.” Take a look at the pic­tures from her lat­est pa­role hear­ing. She is wrin­kled and gray-haired — an old lady.

It would be ridicu­lous for Brown to claim again that Van Houten re­mains a dan­ger to so­ci­ety. Upon re­lease, she will live in a set­ting where she can help other women tran­si­tion out of cus­tody. She also will stand as a sym­bol of hope for other in­mates that if they obey the rules and work hard enough to trans­form them­selves, any­thing is pos­si­ble.

AP file photo, left, DAMIAN DOVARGANES EPA, right

LES­LIE VAN HOUTEN in 1970 (left) and at a pa­role hear­ing in 2002 (right). She is now 68 years old.

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