Leslie Van Houten Should Not Still Be In Prison

a plea to California Governor Gavin Newsom

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She is 71 years old and with the exception of one night more than fifty years ago, she has never been violent. Nobody with any factual information on Van Houten’s case has ever believed she might be violent if she were released from prison. She has never demonstrated any tendencies to slip back into the behavior or mindset she possessed in 1969.

Governor Newsom, you should be pleased that the California penal justice system has been so effective at rehabilitating and redeeming this woman. You can attest to that efficacy by letting Leslie Van Houten live the remainder of her life as a free woman, and also as a cautionary tale.

The night that Leslie participated in murder, August 10th 1969, has been well-documented. Leslie joined two others, Charles Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel, in a home invasion orchestrated by cult leader Charles Manson that resulted in the murder of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, the married homeowners at 3301 Waverly Drive, Los Feliz, Los Angeles, California.

Leslie was found guilty of murder twice — once in 1970, during her initial trial, and again in 1978 after her original conviction was overturned and she was retried for the same crime.

On four occasions, Leslie Van Houten has been recommended for parole by the California parole board. Those recommendations are not simple, thoughtless considerations: they are heavily weighed, considered and debated. The parole boards have found Leslie has met the requirements of parole as outlined by the state of California, on four occasions. They found that she met ALL of the requirements including:

  • lack of a juvenile record or significant history of violent crime
  • crime was committed as a result of significant stress
  • stable social history
  • remorse and understanding of the nature and magnitude of the offense
  • present age reduces the probability of recidivism
  • realistic plans for release and marketable skills
  • institutional behavior indicates an enhanced ability to function within the law upon release

Additionally, Leslie also does not meet the following criteria, cited as information that would be considered unsuitable for parole:

  • the commitment offense was committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner
  • previous record of inflicting or attempting to inflict serious injury on a victim, particularly if serious assaultive behavior was demonstrated at an early age
  • unstable social history
  • prior sexual assault in a manner calculated to inflict unusual pain or fear upon the victim
  • lengthy history or severe mental problems related to the offense
  • serious misconduct while in prison or jail

I’d like to address two items — one from each of the lists above. First, the idea that Van Houten’s crime was committed as a result of significant stress. Leslie Van Houten was a victim of sex trafficking, coercion and significant mental, emotional and physical cruelty. In the summer of 1968, while she was 17-years old, she was trafficked into the Manson Family by another female member, Catherine Share. Ms. Share has admitted that she recruited Leslie on behalf of Charles Manson, with explicit directions from Manson on what types of females he wanted, and what kinds of resources they could bring.

By the summer of 1969, the year after she joined Manson, Share and the others in their communal living situation, Leslie was aware that her inclusion in the Family was dependent upon her committing crimes on their behalf, maintaining utter loyalty to Manson, and fulfilling his wishes — including attracting a young man named Bobby Beausoleil. Leslie failed to meet Manson’s standards. On multiple occasions, she attempted to leave — and was brought back by Manson, with great repercussions. She has reported that he slapped her in the face, and rebuked her for her lack of loyalty.

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A 1969 mugshot of Leslie Van Houten

Between the spring and summer of 1969, the situation with Charles Manson and the Family began to grow more and more tense. By July 1969, Charlie was forcing the women in his cult to participate in military-style training which included demonstrations of stabbing and killing people. By August 8th, the day of the Cielo Drive murders (victims included actress Sharon Tate), every member of the Manson Family was in a state of panic, desperation and delusion — brought on by Charles Manson himself who wanted to keep his Family devoted to him and was reduced to lying and manipulating his followers in order to maintain that devotion.

It is reported that Leslie Van Houten, when she learned about what her friend Patricia Krenwinkel had done at Cielo Drive, was “eager” to join in. That statement is false: Leslie was “willing” because if Pat could kill for Charlie, that meant that Leslie believed that SHE could kill for him. She could prove her loyalty — something that, again, she had been continually tested about for a year.

But when the moment came for her to kill, she, in fact, could not.

The only reason that Leslie Van Houten was selected by Manson to join the killers at the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 10th, was because it was Charlie’s ultimate test of her loyalty, and his ultimate punishment for past disloyalties.

He was punishing her. And make no mistake about it, Charlie selected each of his killers based on two qualifications: their ability to perform as he required, and his dissatisfaction with each of them. Each killer was selected because Manson believed they COULD kill for him, but also because he was attempting to DESTROY each of them. This was how he would punish or perhaps banish his most troublesome followers.

We know this because of the way that he behaved a year and a half later, when he (along with Van Houten, Krenwinkel and another defendant, Susan Atkins) were at trial. It was Manson’s insistence on controlling each of their legal teams that resulted in their utter loyalty, during their trial. One of Leslie’s attorneys wanted to have her evaluated by a psychiatrist. After all, when she was arrested for the murders, Van Houten was convinced that she was a 10-INCH HIGH FAIRY! Charlie wouldn’t allow that psychiatric evaluation, because it was prove how dependent Leslie was on him, how vulnerable she was, and how much his manipulations had contributed to her actions.

The women were so loyal that, during the penalty phase, they each stood up in court and admitted their own guilt and denied that Charlie had done anything wrong.

They were willing to sacrifice themselves, to protect HIM. This further demonstrates the level of loyalty he had demanded from them, to the point where they could not even protect themselves.

There is no doubt that on August 10th, 1969, Leslie Van Houten was stressed to the point that she had no choice. She was trafficked into the Manson Family, forced to participate in their crimes, was assaulted when she showed disloyalty, and was coerced to join the killers in the LaBianca home.

That brings me to the second point: the commitment offense was committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner.

While it is true that Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered in an especially heinous, atrocious and cruel manner, the truth is that Leslie Van Houten did not kill either of these victims.

She participated in their murder, she essentially sanctioned their murders by illegally entering their home (at the order of Charles Manson) and she did commit other crimes while in their home. But she did not technically kill either Mr. or Mrs. LaBianca.

Both victims were tied up when Leslie and Pat Krenwinkel entered the home. Charles Watson was already inside the residence when the women entered. Charles Manson had also been inside the home, tying up the victims, stealing from them, and warning Watson that he better make sure that “everyone got their hands dirty.”

The previous night, at Cielo Drive, one of the participants had not participated in the murders and Charlie knew that might come back to haunt him. That participant, Linda Kasabian, was in the car outside the LaBianca home when Watson, Krenwinkel and Van Houten entered, and Charlie was planning to confront her that night to make sure she wasn’t going to squeal on him. Mrs. Kasabian had just learned that she was pregnant, and in order to protect herself, her unborn child and a toddler that was living with the Family, said whatever she had to say to Manson that night to let him know she would not tell on him. She then escaped, two days later, and testified against Manson, Van Houten, Krenwinkel and Atkins at trial.

When Leslie entered the home at 3301 Waverly Drive, she immediately realized that this was not what she was expecting it to be. Weeks and months of paramilitary training had not fully prepared her for what she now understood would be murder — murder ordered by her leader, Charles Manson.

Leslie assisted Patricia Krenwinkel in further binding Mrs. LaBianca in the bedroom, while Watson murdered Mr. LaBianca in the living room. Leslie remembered hearing Rosemary scream for her husband, and realizing how much they loved each other and how that contradicted what she had been told Charlie’s ‘enemies’ were like.

When Pat attempted to stab Mrs. LaBianca and was unable to, with their victim able to protect herself, Leslie did not jump in to assist. She could not help Pat, her sister and comrade. She could not kill Rosemary LaBianca.

Instead, she called for Watson to assist them, and she went into another room and stared at a wall while Watson stabbed Rosemary LaBianca with a bayonet. When Watson was certain that the woman was dead, he then went into the room where Leslie had retreated (still holding his bayonet) and forced her back into the bedroom where the victim lay on the floor. Watson, remembering Charlie’s words that everyone “got their hands dirty” then ordered Van Houten to stab Mrs. LaBianca.

You have likely read how Leslie then stabbed Rosemary 16 to 17 times in the low back and buttocks, and how she has remembered doing so with a “frenzy” that even startled her.

That frenzy was desperation — fear for her life. If she did not stab Mrs. LaBianca, Charles Watson might stab HER. And if she did not show enthusiasm for the act of stabbing her victim, Watson would surely report that back to Manson — further proof of her disloyalty and her unwillingness to do as ordered.

Additionally, I would mention that much attention has been paid over the years to the way that Leslie and the other women behaved in court. It is true that Leslie, Pat and Susan behaved in a truly terrible fashion. They laughed, they sang songs, they behaved as though they were enjoying themselves and not facing punishment for the murders they helped to commit.

But that is because they were ordered to behave that way, by Charles Manson. Everything they did was because he told them to do so. They each changed attorneys, multiple times, when he ordered them to do so in order to maintain control over what happened in the courtroom and therefore, the outcome he desired: He would be freed. They would be killed.

Manson’s power over Leslie was so extreme that, during the penalty phase, she took the stand and admitted to having been at Cielo Drive, and present for the murder of Sharon Tate and her houseguests. Leslie was NEVER at Cielo Drive and yet she was willing to accept blame for those five deaths, in addition to the murders of the LaBiancas, in order to appease Manson.

When Charlie carved a bloody X on his forehead, his three female co-defendants did so a day later. When he shaved his head, the women did as well. Their behavior in court was just as orchestrated and manipulated as their events at Cielo Drive and Waverly Drive had been.

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Leslie Van Houten (far left) with her codefendants

In 2019, after Leslie’s third recommendation for parole, Governor Newsom, you declined her release, stating that, “When considering as a whole, I find the evidence shows that she currently poses an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison at this time.”

What is that unreasonable danger to society? A 71-year old woman is not easily manipulated the way a 17- or 18-year old woman can be. That 71-year old woman has dedicated the past five decades of her life to understanding how she came to be involved with the Manson Family, why she helped to commit murder on their behalf, what her association with Charles Manson demonstrates to other vulnerable young women, and how she can atone for her crimes.

The truth is that she cannot atone for her crimes, she can only attest to the world the cautionary tale of being a sex trafficking victim who committed the worst offense at the orders of her trafficker. Many women, men, and teen boys and girls face potential coercion and trafficking situations. Leslie has already demonstrated that a potential outcome may be the loss of one’s freedom in the pursuit of pleasing a trafficker, and participating in taking a life when she could not save her own.

What does keeping her in prison tell other victims? That there is no redemption for their own worst choices? That there is no way forward, when you are trapped and drugged and brutalized? That there is no hope, when you have been branded by society as an outcast? That there is no opportunity to make peace with your past and face life again as a regular citizen?

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I realize there is a political component to freeing one of the ‘Manson Family killers’ but remember, one of the killers (Steve Grogan, who killed Donald Jerome Shea at the orders of Charles Manson) has been freed more than 30 years ago. Grogan lives a free life today. Grogan is a demonstration of what redemption and rehabilitation looks like.

And both Grogan and Van Houten have something in common — the age in which they committed their offenses.

But Grogan and Van Houten differ in one regard: Grogan’s victim was alive when he (along with several others) stabbed him.

Leslie Van Houten’s victim was already dead when she was forced to do the same.

Mercy is a tricky thing. The Manson Family did not show their victims mercy and they were found guilty of murder and sentenced initially to death. The state of California showed mercy in 1972 when the death sentence was temporarily abolished, and the Family members on death row were able to transition to life in prison — with the possibility of parole.

Leslie Van Houten meets every requirement of parole, as stated by the California Parole Board. Failing to release her upon their recommendations, shows either that you do not truly understand the nature of her crimes or that you do not trust your state’s own parole process. Failing to release her tells the rest of California citizens that they need not show mercy for someone who committed her worst deeds when she could not make another choice.

Additionally, failing to release a woman who has four-times been recommended for parole only validates her trafficker’s actions. When Manson selected Leslie for the LaBianca murders, it was a terrifying act of control and coercion, designed to test her loyalty and ultimately, to discard her. Please do not discard her now. Do not sentence her in the brutal, vicious way that Charlie did. Give her the opportunity that her trafficker did not permit her.

Leslie Van Houten is a remorseful, regretful and redeemed woman. With her fourth parole recommendation, she should be free to face the consequences of her past outside of the prison. She should be able to choose now how she continues to be a moral cautionary tale to other potential victims and perpetrators, without forcing her to do so behind bars.

H. Allegra Lansing is the author of The Manson Family: More to the Story (published 2019 from Swann Publications). You can learn more about the Family and their crimes by visiting MansonFamily.net.

Written by

Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series. https://www.mansonfamily.net/

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