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California court sides with Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten: Governor refused parole based on ‘unsupported intuition’ and ‘no evidence’

Leslie Van Houten then and now

Leslie Van Houten (L) in a March 29, 1971, file photo in a Los Angeles lockup (AP Photo/File); pictured (R) on May 5, 2020 (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via AP)

A California appellate panel ruled in a 2-1 decision Tuesday that Gov. Gavin Newsom lacked “some evidence” that one of the Charles Manson cult members who murdered Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in 1969 poses a continuing danger to society five decades later.

Although the Board of Parole Hearings repeatedly found convicted Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten suitable for parole in recent years, Democratic Govs. Jerry Brown and Newsom have reversed parole grants five times. Van Houten, now a 73-year-old who has been incarcerated since the 1970s serving concurrent sentences of seven years to life, committed heinous crimes, the appellate majority said. But Newsom’s rationale for denying parole was based on “unsupported intuition” that fell short of the “some evidence” standard outlined by precedent, Justice Helen Bendix wrote in the opinion — and Justice Victoria Gerrard Chaney concurred.

“We review the Governor’s decision under the highly deferential ‘some evidence’ standard, in which even a modicum of evidence is sufficient to uphold the reversal. Even so, we hold on this record, there is no evidence to support the Governor’s conclusion,” Bendix wrote. “Van Houten provided extensive explanation as to the causative factors leading to her involvement with Manson and commission of the murders, and the record does not support a conclusion that there are hidden factors for which Van Houten has failed to account. The Governor’s refusal to accept Van Houten’s explanation amounts to unsupported intuition.”

In summary, the two appellate justices concluded that Van Houten did a better job demonstrating her case for release than the governor did in arguing that she should be kept behind bars.

“The Governor’s finding of inconsistencies between Van Houten’s statements now and at the time of the murders fails to account for the decades of therapy, self-help programming, and reflection Van Houten has undergone in the past 50 years. The historical factors identified in the criminal risk assessment are the sort of immutable circumstances our Supreme Court has held cannot support a finding of current dangerousness when there is extensive evidence of rehabilitation and other strong indicators of parole suitability, all of which Van Houten has demonstrated,” the majority found.

As a result, Van Houten’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus was granted.

“The Governor’s decision reversing the Board of Parole Hearings’ July 2020 decision finding Leslie Van Houten suitable for parole is vacated, the grant of parole is reinstated, and the Board of Parole Hearings is directed to conduct its usual proceedings for a release on parole,” the majority ruled.

Presiding Justice Frances Rothschild penned the lone dissent, writing: “In my view, the record contains some evidence to support the Governor’s decision to reverse Leslie Van Houten’s 2020 grant of parole in at least two ways.” Rothschild opined that there is both some evidence that Van Houten continues to minimize her role in the LaBianca murders and some evidence that she can still be manipulated by others — posing a potential danger to society.

More Law&Crime coverage: California governor stops release of Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten

“The current record supports the Governor’s reversal for the same reasons the record in 2019 supported the Governor’s reversal: Some evidence indicates Van Houten still ‘minimize[s] her role in the murder[s] of [Rosemary and Leno] La Bianca[ ], thus indicating a lack of insight into her crimes,” Rothschild wrote. “Second, the record contains some evidence that Van Houten has failed to show sufficient insight by failing to make a connection between her relationship with Charles Manson and her prison marriage to a man who sought to take advantage of her.”

Rothschild wrote that Van Houten’s poor judgment in prison relationships with men was one indication that she was still vulnerable to that kind of manipulation [citations removed]:

I further conclude that the record contains at least a ‘modicum’ of evidence to support the Governor’s reversal of parole in a manner not discussed in our 2019 opinion. Specifically, the record contains evidence from which one could reasonably conclude that Van Houten failed to identify parallels between her relationship with Manson—a relationship in which, according to Van Houten, Manson manipulated her and was able to do so because she was desperately seeking his acceptance—and her marriage years later to another man seeking to exploit her. The record reflects Van Houten was married “briefly” to a parolee she met in the visitors’ room while in prison. She initially was not aware that this man—like Manson—”wanted to exploit [her].” Van Houten’s counsel urges that, because Van Houten divorced the man after a short time, the relationship actually indicates that Van Houten has learned from the past. This is one, but certainly not the only reasonable interpretation of the evidence. And the record does not contain anything indicating Van Houten ever made the connection that she, through this marriage, was again setting herself on a path to be manipulated by a man. To the contrary, Van Houten downplayed the relationship when speaking to the parole board by indicating she “didn’t have any relationships while in prison, but [rather] she wrote to a couple guys.

Despite “extensive therapy and programs” in the decades behind prison walls, Van Houten still failed to “independently identify the possibility that similar tendencies were at play when she married a man who, like Manson, sought to exploit her” — constituting “at least some evidence that her insight into the causes of her crime is lacking,” Rothschild argued.

In closing, Rothschild made sure to note that one man Van Houten had a romantic relationship with had murdered two women.

“Further information in the record about these relationships is sparse, but includes evidence that Van Houten corresponded for approximately 16 years with a man who murdered two women, that this relationship was romantic in nature, and that it ended because the man committed suicide,” said a footnote.

Law&Crime reached out to the governor’s office for comment.

When he rejected Van Houten’s parole, Newsom wasn’t satisfied that the infamous cult killer, even after all of this time, understands “what allowed her to be vulnerable to Mr. Manson’s influence.”

“At her parole hearing, Ms. Van Houten explained that she was turning her back on her parents following their divorce and after a forced abortion. She described herself at the time of her involvement in the Manson Family as a ‘very weak person that took advantage of someone that wanted to take control of my life and I handed it over,'” Newsom previously said. “I am unconvinced that these factors adequately explain her eagerness to submit to a dangerous cult leader or her desire to please Mr. Manson, including engaging in the brutal actions of the life crime.”

Charles Manson Mugshot

Charles Manson pictured in 2009 [Photo via California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/Getty Images]

“Given the extreme nature of the crime in which she was involved, I do not believe she has sufficiently demonstrated that she has come to terms with the totality of the factors that led her to participate in the vicious Manson Family killings. Before she can be safely released, Ms. Van Houten must do more to develop her understanding of the factors that caused her to seek acceptance from such a negative, violent influence, and perpetrate extreme acts of wanton violence,” he added.

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.