Manson follower denied parole for 19th time

Associated Press/July 5, 2010

Los Angeles - Leslie Van Houten, the one-time Charles Manson follower long seen as the most likely of his ex-acolytes to win freedom someday, was denied parole Tuesday for a 19th time in the killings of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca.

At the conclusion of the emotional three-hour hearing, the chairman of the parole board, Robert Doyle, said Van Houten was not yet suitable for parole because she had failed to gain complete insight into her crime and its motivation.

While commending her for her adjustment to prison and her work on behalf of other prisoners, Doyle and deputy commissioner Carol Bentley said the crimes involved were so atrocious and heinous that they must be considered in the decision.

"She does not look at herself to see what made her capable of this activity," Doyle said. Both he and Bentley said they were disappointed that Van Houten chose not to speak to them directly.

"It's been 15 years since I've seen you," Bentley said, "and commissioner Doyle has never heard from you."

Doyle criticized a report from a psychologist who he said accepted everything Van Houten told her and did not look beneath the surface.

He particularly noted that in the past, Van Houten has suffered from dependence on strong male figures who were able to control her.

He suggested she needs more counseling on how to deal with men.

However, he said the concerns for public safety are not sufficient to give her a 10- or 15-year denial. He scheduled another hearing in three years.

Van Houten, who last appeared before a parole board in 2007, showed no response to the decision and was taken back to her cell.

During the hearing, she read a statement apologizing to the victims' family "for the pain I caused" and saying she understood their grief. She gave them a private written apology.

She said she understood the enormity of her crime and makes no excuses for her actions. She said she has gained insight during her 41 years in prison that is helping her to understand "so it does not happen again."

Louis Smaldino, a member of the La Bianca family, spoke during the hearing of the unending anguish they have experienced and suggested that Van Houten should have been executed. He urged the board to keep her in prison and deny another parole hearing for as long as possible.

"Miss Van Houten is a murdering terrorist, and her character does not change," he said.

Debra Tate, sister of the slain Sharon Tate, whose killing is not involved in this case, appeared on behalf of another La Bianca family member, Angela Smaldino. Tate said Smaldino believes Van Houten should be commended for her growth but thinks her behavior would be unpredictable in a changed world.

"It's not a risk that most of us would want to take," she said.

Van Houten's attorney, Brandie Devall, highlighted her impeccable disciplinary record.

"There is nothing in the record that suggests her dangerousness," she said. "You have a record before you of reform and rehabilitation. People can and do change."

Devall also asked the panel to consider Van Houten's age - 19 - when she joined in the La Bianca killings. She noted Van Houten came under the influence of Manson, "who had a knack for finding lost young people and manipulating them."

Devall quoted one of the original prosecutors in the case, Stephen Kay, who said in 1980 that Van Houten would be suitable for parole someday.

"We now have three decades more," she said. "There is no need for more time to observe Miss Van Houten."

However, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Patrick Sequeira recounted the murders' savagery and urged the panel not to accept the idea that Manson was responsible and Houten was not.

"It's been said he turned people into mindless robots," Sequeira said of Manson. "But there were people in the commune who did not participate in the murders."

He noted that Van Houten chose not to answer questions of the panel at the hearing.

"Nevertheless, the real question that arises is who does this? Who joins this group after hearing the news of what happened at the Tate residence the night before?" Sequeira asked.

Arguing for her continued incarceration, he said, "There's just something about this woman, something about her that led her to cross a very heavy line and become involved in these brutal, savage murders."

Devall responded that current case law suggests the panel should look at "who the person is sitting before you today," and not base its entire decision on the crimes.

After the hearing, Devall said she will probably appeal the ruling.

Asked why Van Houten chose not to speak to the panel, Devall said "There's nothing new for her to add. She has said it all. This time the court won't be able to use her words against her."

Sequeira said he was pleased with the decision and felt Van Houten had not taken full responsbility for her crimes.

"She makes herself out to be a victim rather than a full participant ... I'd like her to tell the truth about what she did," Sequeira said.

Among those attending Tuesday's hearing was Barbara Hoyt, a former Manson family member, who said she had not seen Van Houten in 40 years.

"I hope my coming here stumped her a little bit," Hoyt said.

Hoyt said if she had not seen pictures of the older Van Houten, she would never have recognized her.

Van Houten was convicted of murder and conspiracy for her role in the slayings of the La Biancas. They were stabbed to death in August 1969, one night after Manson's followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four others.

Van Houten did not participate in the Tate killings but went along the next night when the La Biancas were slain in their home. During the penalty phase of her trial, she confessed to joining in stabbing Mrs. La Bianca after she was dead.

The Tate-La Bianca killings became one of the most notorious murder cases of the 20th Century and continues to rivet public attention 41 years later.

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