Parole denial for Leslie Van Houten suggests stigma too great for release of Manson followers
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CHINO, Calif. – The news that Leslie Van Houten was denied her 20th bid for parole sounded a warning for other prisoners marked with the stigma of the Manson Family crimes.
"I X-ed myself out of society and I ask you to allow me to re-enter society," Van Houten said, referring to a time when she and other Charles Manson followers emulated the cult leader in carving the letter X on their foreheads.
But her plea, supported by evidence of her rehabilitation and her good works in prison, carried little weight with the two parole commissioners, who said her crimes were so "heinous and atrocious" that they overwhelmed everything else.
"The crimes will always be a factor," said Board of Parole Hearings Commissioner Jeffrey Ferguson. "The question is whether the good will ever outweigh the bad. It certainly didn't today."
Van Houten had told him: "I know I did something that is unforgiveable, but I can create a world where I make amends. I'm trying to be someone who lives a life for healing rather than destruction."
She was convicted of murder and conspiracy for her role in the slayings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, wealthy Los Angeles grocers stabbed to death in August 1969. During the penalty phase of her trial Van Houten confessed to joining in stabbing Mrs. La Bianca after she was dead. A night earlier, Manson's followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four others, but Van Houten did not take part in those murders.
Van Houten spoke frankly of her crimes and apologized to the families of victims. The hearing lasted eight hours, but while Van Houten spoke of becoming a new person during her 44 years in prison, it was the old person — the 19-year-old killer who was convicted with Manson and two other women followers — who was the subject of Wednesday's parole hearing at the California Institution for Women.
Though cult leader Manson was not present, his influence loomed over the proceedings
Van Houten's lawyer, Michael Satris, said his client "sank to the depths of Dante's inferno and she put herself there by consorting with the devil himself, Charles Manson."
With victims' survivors sitting behind her in a cramped room at the California Institution for Women, Van Houten acknowledged participating in the killings ordered by Manson. She said she was drawn to the cult leader because he seemed to have all the answers.
"He could never have done what he did without people like me," said Van Houten.
The denial came at the 63-year-old's parole hearing on Wednesday, where the panel heard from relatives of the LaBiancas. They denounced her as a remorseless killer and said she would be a danger to society. The panel agreed in spite of 49 letters from friends of Van Houten, who offered her housing and support if she was released.
Van Houten won't be eligible to ask for parole again for five years, but Ferguson said she could request another hearing sooner if circumstances change.
One former Manson follower, Barbara Hoyt, spoke against Van Houten, remembering her as a leader within the Manson group who knew that a race war was being planned. She noted that some have described life with Manson's "family" as hell.
"But she was having a good time time in hell," Hoyt said of Van Houten. "She enjoyed it out there."
Van Houten showed no reaction to the ruling and quickly was escorted out of the room.
At her trial, Van Houten's defense lawyers portrayed her as the youngest and least culpable of those convicted with Manson, as a young woman from a good family who had been a homecoming princess and showed promise until she became involved with drugs and was recruited into the murderous cult.
Now deeply wrinkled with long gray hair tied back in a ponytail, Van Houten acknowledged her most hateful acts.
She said that when she heard the Manson family had killed Tate and others, she felt left out and asked to go along the second night.
Asked if she would have done the same had children been involved, she answered, "I can't say I wouldn't have done that. I'd like to say I wouldn't, but I don't know."
She added, "I feel that at that point I had really lost my humanity and I can't know how far I would have gone. I had no regard for life and no measure of my limitations."
Manson, now 78, has stopped coming to parole hearings, sending word that prison is his home and he wants to stay there.
AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch covered the Tate-LaBianca killings and the Manson trial as well as multiple parole hearings for Manson family members.