Van Houten prosecutor restates his purpose

Daily Breeze/July 2, 2002
By Denise Nix

Stephen Kay, South Bay resident and Los Angeles County's head deputy district attorney, has made 58 trips around the state to parole hearings for cult leader Charles Manson and four of his disciples, all of whom were convicted of murder in the early 1970s and are serving life sentences.

None of the trips is easy, including the latest on Friday, when Kay spent the day in the emotionally draining 14th parole hearing for former Manson follower Leslie Van Houten at the California Institution for Women in Frontera.

"Van Houten, of course, wants to get out in the worst way," Kay said. "It was a fight. Her attorney was fighting to do everything she could possibly do for her and I was fighting to put on the prosecution side of the case."

Van Houten, 52, has spent more than 30 years in prison for the killings of Rosemary and Leno La Bianca in 1969. Cult members, under the direction of Manson, tried to blame the murders on blacks in order to incite a race war. Van Houten was not present the night before when family members killed Sharon Tate and four others in the actress's Beverly Hills home.

Kay was a relative rookie in the District Attorney's Office when he became a key prosecutor in the trials against Van Houten and the other cult members for the Tate-La Bianca murders.

Since then, the Rancho Palos Verdes resident has put away some of the county's most notorious and brutal killers, and has worked his way up the ranks of the District Attorney's Office, including serving as head deputy for the office's Torrance branch.

Kay, 59, helped establish a program in his office in which prosecutors attend parole hearings for perpetrators of major crimes serving indeterminate life sentences.

Kay, however, has only personally attended the parole hearings of the five convicted in the Tate-La Bianca murders.

"All of these Tate-La Bianca defendants try to shade the truth about what they did on the nights of the murders," Kay said.

But Kay knows the case inside out, and it would be difficult for another prosecutor to study up on 200,000 pages of transcripts from four trials.

"I know how dangerous these people are and these are not garden-variety murders," Kay said. "I wanted to bring the board members, the two hearing officers, back to 1969 so they could relive the murders - and those were very gruesome murders - and it is not a very pleasant task to relive them."

It was believed that Van Houten, who has an impeccable record in prison, had a chance at parole, especially since a San Bernardino judge ruled in May that the parole board repeatedly failed to give the inmate guidance as to what she can do to make herself a suitable candidate for release.

The ruling stemmed from Van Houten's parole hearing in 2000, and the judge can still order another hearing for Van Houten within 30 days if he finds the parole board did not follow his instructions, Kay said.

Without hesitation, Kay said he would go back.

"I understand that some of them were younger, but they basically murdered innocent strang ers for the sole purpose of blaming these murders on blacks and hoping that, in retaliation, whites would start indiscriminately killing blacks to trigger a race war," Kay said.

"It's a little different motive than your usual robbing the corner liquor store for money," Kay said. "I think that people who believed in that motive enough to murder innocent strangers don't deserve to be unleashed on society."

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