Parole Denied to a Follower of Manson

New York Times/June 29, 2002
By James Sterngold

Los Angeles -- Leslie Van Houten tried today for a 14th time to win parole after more than 30 years in prison for her role in the Manson cult's killings of Rosemary and Leno La Bianca in 1969, but the parole board led her through a chilling recollection of the stabbings and again denied her freedom.

The parole board announced its rejection of her parole petition shortly after the hearing. It called her expressions of remorse "superficial" and urged her to continue psychological therapy to come to grips with the "enormity of her crime."

No one denies that Ms. Van Houten, now a calm, articulate 52-year-old, has been a model prisoner, earning a university degree and helping other inmates. A California judge recently found that the state had improperly denied her parole because, the judge said, she had been rehabilitated.

But at the parole hearing today, the board led Ms. Van Houten carefully through a description of the murders.

A prosecutor in her trial, Stephen Kay, who is still a prosecutor, then offered further details of the murders and the merciless and methodical means Charles Manson's followers used in killing a couple who had been chosen randomly. At the hearing, two nephews and a niece of the La Biancas covered their faces as gruesome details were recounted.

Ms. Van Houten described how she and another member of Mr. Manson's cult led Mrs. La Bianca into a bedroom, then covered her head with a pillow and tried to stab her, for no reason other than that Mr. Manson had ordered it in a plan to incite a race war.

When Mrs. La Bianca heard her husband being stabbed to death in the living room, she fought and was subdued, but the blade of the kitchen knife used to stab her bent and Ms. Van Houten and the other attacker called for another Manson follower, Charles Watson, to help. Mr. Watson used a bayonet to stab Mrs. La Bianca, and then, Ms. Van Houten said, she stabbed Mrs. La Bianca in the abdomen 14 to 16 times.

Ms. Van Houten said she believed Mrs. La Bianca was dead from the previous wounds when she stabbed her but admitted she was not sure.

"I feel I contributed to her death," Ms. Van Houten said.

Mr. Kay insisted that whether Mrs. La Bianca was already dead should not matter. "I don't think she gets any credit for that," he told the parole board.

Ms. Van Houten admitted wiping away fingerprints in the house and burning the clothing they had worn, and she even recalled what she and the other intruders stole from the refrigerator for snacks.

"On the way out we stopped at the refrigerator and took cheese and chocolate milk," she said.

Ms. Van Houten expressed remorse for the crime, saying, "Each day I wake up, I know why I'm waking up where I am."

She and her lawyer said that Ms. Van Houten was under a spell when she acted and accepted Mr. Manson's racist teachings without question and that she suffered from a mental illness, which was exacerbated by LSD.

"I believed that he was Jesus Christ," Ms. Van Houten said of Mr. Manson. "I bought into it lock, stock and barrel."

But Mr. Kay insisted she was aware of what she was doing.

"This was not a rash and unthinking act on the part of Leslie Van Houten," he said. "She knew exactly what she was doing.

The murders of the La Biancas took place one day after Mr. Manson's followers killed the actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant, and four friends. Ms. Van Houten did not participate in that crime.

Even if parole for Ms. Van Houten had been approved, the chance that she would actually have been released would have been slight. Her parole would have to be approved by Gov. Gray Davis, who has accepted only 2 of the 148 cases the board has approved. Both involved women who claimed that the men they killed were abusive and that they suffered from battered woman syndrome, but had not been permitted to use that defense at their trials. The law allowing the defense in California was passed in 1992.

Ms. Van Houten recently won a state court ruling that she had been improperly denied parole. The state is appealing the ruling, but Mr. Kay said in an interview that he would be prepared for another hearing.

"This murder was off the charts," he said. "If the court gives her another hearing, I'll be back."

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