CHINO, San Bernardino County (CBS / AP) — A parole panel refused an emotional bid by former Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten to release her from prison 44 years after she participated in a notorious set of murders.
The denial came at the 63-year-old’s 20th parole hearing on Wednesday, where the panel heard from relatives of the victims who were opposed to her release.
Board of Parole Hearings Commissioner Jeffrey Ferguson told Van Houten she had failed to explain how someone as intelligent and well-bred as she was could have committed the “cruel and atrocious” murders of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca. She won’t be eligible to ask for parole again for five years, but Ferguson said she could request another hearing sooner if circumstances change.
“The crimes will always be a factor,” he said. “The question is whether the good will ever outweigh the bad. It certainly didn’t today.”
Van Houten was convicted of murder and conspiracy for her role in the slayings of wealthy Los Angeles grocers Leno and Rosemary La Bianca. They were stabbed to death in August 1969, one night after Manson’s followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four others. Van Houten was 19 at the time.
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.
“I know I did something that is unforgiveable, but I can create a world where I make amends,” Van Houten said before the decision.
With survivors of the LaBiancas sitting behind her at the California Institution for Women, Van Houten acknowledged participating in the killings ordered by Manson.
“He could never have done what he did without people like me,” said Van Houten, who has been in custody for 44 years.
The ruling came after a full-day hearing at which six representatives of the La Bianca family spoke in anguish about the loss of the couple.
“Today after 44 years, your crimes still instill fear in innocent people,” said Ferguson. “The motive was the worst I can imagine, to incite a race war. Your crimes were gruesome and bloody.”
During her comments, Van Houten repeatedly said that she was traumatized by her parents’ divorce when she was 14, her pregnancy soon after and her mother’s insistence that she have an abortion.
“Many people have traumatic childhoods,” said Ferguson. “You have failed to explain at this time what would cause you to commit such horrific atrocities.”
Van Houten showed no reaction to the ruling and quickly was escorted out of the room.
In her final statement, Van Houten apologized to everyone she harmed.
“I know that the pain goes on generationally. I want the victims to know I’m deeply ashamed of what I have done,” she said.
After years of therapy and self-examination, she said, she realizes that what she did was “like a pebble falling in a pond which affected so many people.”
“Mr. and Mrs. La Bianca died the worst possible deaths a human being can,” she said.
Arguing to the board, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Sequiera said some crimes may be an exception to the law guaranteeing the possibility of parole.
“There are certain crimes that are so heinous, so atrocious, so horrible that it should cause denial of parole,” he said, elaborating on Van Houten’s contradictions over the years.
In response, 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.”
However, Satris said his client has totally reformed herself.
“Leslie committed a great sin, a great crime in 1969, and in that time (in prison) she has developed into the equal of a saint,” he said. “Everything she does is for humanity.”
Van Houten was portrayed at trial by her defense lawyers as the youngest and least culpable of those convicted with Manson, 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 Manson’s murderous cult.
Now deeply wrinkled with long gray hair tied back in a ponytail, Van Houten at times seemed near tears but did not break down at the Wednesday hearing.
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.”
Asked to explain her actions, she said, “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 measurement of my limitations.”
Van Houten has previously been commended for her work helping elderly women inmates at the California Institution for Women. She earned two college degrees while in custody.
Other members of Manson’s murderous “family” have lost bids for parole.
One former follower, Bruce Davis, was approved for parole last year only to have Gov. Jerry Brown veto the plan in March, saying he wanted the 70-year-old Davis to reveal more details about the killings of a stunt man and a musician. Davis was not involved in the slayings of Sharon Tate and six others.
Manson, now 78, has stopped coming to parole hearings, sending word that prison is his home and he wants to stay there.
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