A long and well-documented record testifies to the model behavior of Leslie Van Houten during the decades she has spent in prison for her role in killing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in 1969, when she was a 19-year-old member of Charles Manson’s cult.
Society rightly demands that murderers like Van Houten be imprisoned to protect the public from further harm and to exact a just measure of retribution for their actions. And, if possible, to rehabilitate the criminals by requiring them to confront the cruel nature of their crimes and the portion of their character that moved them to commit them. It is entirely fair to require that they demonstrate contrition and a fundamental redirection of their moral compass. And, upon achieving all of those things, their imprisonment should end.
By those measures, Van Houten has attained rehabilitation. It is time that she, at age 73, be released and allowed to live out the rest of her life among us.
A California appeals court on Tuesday overruled Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision last year to deny Van Houten’s release after a parole board found her “suitable” for parole for the fourth time. The governor can appeal by asking state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta to petition the California Supreme Court to reverse the Court of Appeal.
The right decision now, though, is to let the matter drop, let the parole board finding and the appellate court ruling stand, and let Van Houten out.
The possibility of a parole is an incentive for convicted criminals to change. It is analogous to criminal punishment, which reminds would-be offenders of the line that separates acceptable and unacceptable conduct and imposes consequences for crossing it. Seeing people in prison reform yet be repeatedly denied parole, when reform and parole are built into their sentence, seems as unjust as seeing people repeatedly break laws without ever being held to account. Perfect consistency is seldom achievable in human endeavor, but we must make a sincere attempt or risk losing respect for the law and institutions of justice.
Parole decisions are not easy. The Times editorial page considered Van Houten’s previous bids for parole and weighed in against them largely because her act was not a mere murder but in furtherance of Manson’s deranged plot to overthrow the government and society by spurring a race war and, somehow, emerging from it as a savior.
So what changed our minds? We have no answer that will be universally satisfying.
Perhaps it is because of Van Houten’s age, that being in her 70s is markedly different from her being in her 60s.
Perhaps it’s seeing the example of others, such as Hampig “Harry” Sassounian, who received a life term after being convicted of the assassination of Turkish Consul General Kemal Arikan in Los Angeles in 1982. Like Van Houten, Sassounian was 19 when he committed his crime. After he spent nearly 40 years in a California prison, he was found suitable for parole, as was Van Houten, and was freed in 2021 after a court overruled Newsom’s objection. Newsom decided not to appeal. Perhaps 40 years is enough for anyone who no longer poses a danger to society.
Perhaps it’s recalling that although Van Houten’s first sentence was death, it was thrown out and she was tried two more times before being sentenced to seven years to life with parole, and that her prosecutor said he wanted and expected her to be eventually paroled, and that she has now served her seven-year minimum sentence more than seven times over.
The Court of Appeal detailed Van Houten’s statements to multiple parole boards, her academic achievements in prison, her excellent behavior. It rejected Newsom’s explanation that Van Houten hadn’t fully confronted her actions, which the court said was not based on her record, but on “unsupported intuition.”
It is difficult to fault Newsom for harboring an intuition that springs from the horror of Van Houten’s crime. It was a response shared and expressed by the Times editorial board until now. But that intuition has been superseded by the facts of Van Houten’s comportment for more than half a century. Van Houten should be released.